The visits of the US presidents to Estonia became historic with their strict security standards, which were nevertheless more relaxed than those of the song and dance festival parade – no other public event has seen such security.
Early Sunday morning at 7. The residents of Pelgulinn are still sleeping when a column of cars rushes to the central city police station through drizzle along empty streets. A hundred police officers, some in uniform and others in plain clothes arrive as from nowhere and fill the courtyard in a few minutes.
These are the police force of the song festival: police cadets in high visibility vests, armed rapid response team and detectives in plain clothes – altogether 130 law enforcement officers. The K-squad special unit is stationed somewhere on roofs and key positions as well. The briefing begins. All that has a single goal: to prevent some car thief, inspired by terrorist attacks in Europe from attacking the 40,000 children who will pass through the city in two hours.
«Yes – we have never before had to block the route of such distance,» admits Kaido Saarniit, head of the central city police station. Security is the main reason why this operation can be described only in retrospect and omitting certain details.
The five-kilometer route of the parade is secured at crossroads with rescue vehicles, cares and concrete blocks. There are some couple of hundred of three-ton concrete blocks – when stood end to end they would form a wall half a kilometer long. Intersections must be blocked exactly by eight o’clock. Trams will be stopped at 8.30.
«We initially planned to close down only the major streets, but then began to pay attention to all places where a car or a truck could pick up speed,» Saarniit says. «We decided to triple the number of blocks.»
Only exits of businesses or apartment houses remain free.
Yet another route was closed to traffic – the reserve route via Estonia Boulevard through Kadriorg Park to the Song Festival Ground. That was meant for use in case some accident on the main route: a bursting water pipe or fire in an apartment. However, in case of a real attack the parade would be dispersed immediately. The reserve route would then serve as an evacuation area and a secure space.
«The most serious problem for me is possible panic. Some boys made a silly joke with bomb belts in Turin and people got killed in a stampede. This kind of panic is what I fear,» Saarniit says. This is why balloons were forbidden in the parade due to their habit of bursting with a bang. The city of Tallinn ordered 6,000 balloons, but did not distribute them among the participants according to the police recommendation.
While police officers are usually placed between the parade and the onlookers, that role was not played by Defense League members to free the officers for other duties.
This freedom was urgently needed Saturday afternoon, when young dancers decided to stage the dance show, cancelled due to bad weather, in Vabaduse Square. Curiously, the spontaneous show turned out to be highly secured, since all free police officers were sent there: 20 rapid response officers with full equipment and four patrols.
But by the beginning of the parade there could be no improvised details. The instructions to officers are simple. They move in pairs. If anything serious happens, the response force intervenes. K-squad members are stationed in agreed-upon places and plainclothes officers move among the people. Uniformed and plainclothes officers have their ways of recognizing each other if necessary.
«The role of the plainclothes officers is to be our eyes and ears. You cannot see in the surveillance camera what a person on the spot can notice: conduct, style of communication, messages, glimpses etc,» Saarniit says.
A lot of work was done in the seaport, where large trucks move and people with evil intent could gather.
The performers or onlookers have no idea that the police armory was near the parade all the time. The operation was controlled from the Northern prefecture HQ in Pärnu Road, but there were also three additional control centers, including one in the Song Festival Ground, where special emphasis was placed on explosive devices control.
It is 7.28. Urmet Tambre, head of the Northern prefecture’s criminal investigation bureau, finishes the briefing of the waiting officers. A demonstration against the cutting of trees on the Reidi Road route is planned near the Rusalka monument. The police must be prepared to deal with unstable individuals – for example, a group of people decided to attend the recent opening festivities of the EU presidency wearing helmets. Young policemen grin.
«One more thing!» Henry Murumaa, head of security of the parade, calls out. «Do not look shocked if the children come to hug you, they are our partners. Keep your eyes open and look friendly!»
P.S. The only tense situation during the parade happened in the morning when the police discovered that some car owners had not removed their vehicles from the route despite warning. The route was cleared shortly before the beginning of the parade. Two drunken persons were detained in Estonia Boulevard and two more at the Oru gate.