The Missoula police officers who provided security at the Salt Lake Winter Olympics faced two weeks of long days, swarming crowds, and dozens of potential threats. But the only threat that actually took an officer out of commission was something you just can’t plan for: an appendicitis.
In the first week of the games Officer Ken Guy fell ill and some fellow officers took him to the emergency room, according to Assistant Chief Rusty Wickman, who led the officers to Utah. Guy had his appendix removed the following day, and by Sunday he was back at the Olympics. At first he was put to work monitoring closed circuit TVs, but he insisted he was well enough to head back into the fray. By Monday Guy was back at the vehicle search checkpoints.
“He actually established himself with a pretty good reputation,” Wickman says. “People with colds said ‘There’s no way I’m calling in sick.’ He raised the bar pretty high.”
Sixteen Missoula officers went to Salt Lake City for the games, which lasted from Feb. 8 to 24. Sending officers to the Olympics was Missoula’s end of a reciprocal agreement that brought Utah police to Montana for the Hell’s Angels visit in July 2000.
The Missoula Police Department was originally slated to be the only out-of-state local agency to assist at the Olympics, but post-Sept. 11 security concerns brought in many others, Wickman says. All in all, more than 10,000 officers from various law enforcement and military agencies contributed to security at the games at a cost of more than $300 million.
The Missoula police were assigned to a ski competition site called Snow Basin, a venue north of Salt Lake City near the town of Ogden. Half the officers pulled day shifts and the rest worked nights. Everyone worked 10- to 11-hour days for 18 straight days, Wickman says.
“At night the guys didn’t have the athletes to visit with or the public, so they had some cold, lonely nights,” Wickman says.
Detective Jeff Dobie worked the day shift, concentrating mostly on the spectators at ski events. Most of his work involved “easing the flow” of huge numbers of fans going to and from the venue, which was located at 9,300 feet and served by a narrow two-lane road. There were multiple checkpoints for spectators to get to the top.
“They all get dropped off by bus and they come in kind of gradually,” Dobie says. “But when it’s time to go they all leave at once, so you could imagine 30,000 people being bussed out on buses 50 to 70 people per bus. You can imagine the congestion for a couple of hours.”
The Missoula officers helped with crowd control mostly during downhill skiing events. The events were sold out nearly every day, says Detective Rich Ochsner. Although most of the officers are sports fans and it was exciting to be so close to the competition, dealing with the enormous crowd kept their focus away from the games. Getting to interact with the spectators was a good experience, says Dobie.
“People down there were very respectful,” Dobie says. “I think the majority of the people I talked to were Salt Lake people, but I’d say I talked to people from every state in the nation and a lot of Europeans. A lot of Austrians, they love skiing.”
Ochsner agrees that the officers were well received.
“The people that we talked to were just very grateful that we were there as far as citizens from the area and so forth. We got a lot of positive feedback from the people,” he says.
Most of the officers’ interaction was with spectators and other law enforcement personnel, although they did meet some of the athletes. Some officers told of the Missoula group’s brush with 1998 gold-medal skier Picabo Street.
“She was a very nice person. Several of us got our picture taken with her,” says Ochsner.
The Missoula police were occupied with official duties for practically their entire trip, not leaving any time for sightseeing. The officers remained close to the Snow Basin venue, only making it into Salt Lake City once to pick up their credentials, Dobie says. They did not attend events like the opening or closing ceremonies.
“We saw it on TV just like everyone else from the lunch hall at the dorms,” Dobie says.
In addition to negotiating tens of thousands of spectators and hundreds of buses, the officers were on the lookout for potential acts of terrorism.
At one point a man from California drove up to one of the Snow Basin checkpoints and made threats against the venue, Wickman says. Then on the second to last day of competition, the man bought a ticket and showed up at the day’s events.
“We and the Secret Service were watching him,” Wickman says. “He came in and watched some of the competition and left and didn’t do anything wrong.”
Wickman says the police presence and surveillance could have helped to deter the man from acting on his threats.
“He was so vocal about it we watched him and didn’t have any problem with him,” Wickman says. “Once we talked to him inside the venue we didn’t have any problem with him.”
The Winter Olympics finished with no major security problems. There were no terrorist attacks, and in fact Utah’s crime rate dropped during the games. The only significant trouble spot was a drunken riot on the second to last night, when organizers of “Bud World” in downtown Salt Lake City angered revelers by closing down the party at midnight.
Taking part in such a major security mobilization was a valuable learning experience for the force, Wickman says. Getting to work with other agencies, the military, and Olympic planners was particularly unique, he added.
“It was a huge learning and observation mission for us to fulfill a mission of that magnitude,” Wickman says. Also valuable, he says, was getting to see his officers in action and compare them with authorities from around the country. He was pleased with what he saw. “To be honest, I felt like the quality of our officers was just top notch down there.”