Lots of work goes into protecting a president

Lots of work goes into protecting a president

URBANA — Tom Geis could be forgiven for yawning at 5 p.m. Friday.

The University of Illinois police lieutenant charged with protecting a former leader of the free world and the hundreds of people who wanted to hear him had been running on adrenaline for more than 12 hours.

"I got up at 4:30 a.m. and got to work at 6," said Geis, clearly relieved that former President Barack Obama had come and gone "without incident," as police like to say.

"The planning that we do with the Secret Service and all the other entities paid off. It was a very successful event. We had very few issues, if any at all. I can't even think of any," he said.

Those "other entities" include countless UI campus folks such as the dean of students, special events planners, public affairs specialists, caterers, building maintenance, grounds crews and airport workers, just to name a few.

Anyone familiar with folks in those jobs knows many of them were going on as little sleep as Geis.

The 18-year veteran of the UI police department, who normally supervises detectives, has worked with the Secret Service before.

"This is a little different because it's a former president. There are a lot of logistics. The police are there to support the mission of the Secret Service but to also provide a safe and secure environment for the attendees," he said.

Obama and crew were on the ground in Champaign County just under five hours Friday. He arrived at Willard Airport in a private jet with a tail number that registers to a lawyer associated with filmmaker George Lucas at 10:05 a.m.

The motorcade — around nine or 10 vehicles with police — got "no extra special treatment. They went with the flow of traffic," Geis said.

After making a formal speech, eating a quick lunch, hobnobbing in a coffee shop and accepting an ethics award, Obama's plane was wheels up at 2:58 p.m.

 

'It went very smoothly'

Famous people often attract folks who don't care for them, so police have to prepare for protesters and hecklers, Geis said.

There were very few of those, according to UI police Sgt. Matt Ballinger, whose responsibility was to coordinate security in and around Foellinger Auditorium, where Obama spoke.

"There weren't enough of them to give a lot of attention to," said Ballinger, who was also relieved by the good behavior. "It went very smoothly."

Ballinger cited only a couple of issues that gave police pause: students who neglected to follow the rules about bringing bags and purses to the auditorium and were forced to leave them out in the rain and folks who got too close to Obama's motorcade as he was leaving the Quad and had to be directed back.

"I saw so many people crying tears of joy. People were just absolutely beside themselves," Ballinger said.

A 14-year member of the UIPD, Ballinger has helped with security for many famous people, but never a former U.S. president.

Geis said much of the same planning that goes into security for football weekends was in play for Obama's visit. Coincidentally, this was a football weekend, so plenty of extra area police were working Saturday as well. And that was after a concert at State Farm Center, where alcohol was flowing Friday night.

"Luckily, it's a lot of the same faces. Everybody knows each other, knows what's expected, and we go about our business," he said.

"We put out a call to all the local police departments. Everybody responded. We give them a number, but the more, the better. Obviously, the event is on our property and we bear the lion's share of the staffing."

"Everybody is good at helping out," he said.

"I can't give you a number," he said of the security required. He meant he wouldn't.

"When you have people who want to attack an event, they want to know how many. We say 10; they bring 20. You never bring a knife to a gunfight."

 

'Overplanning' part of job

It was Aug. 28 when Geis learned Obama was coming — two days before the news was made public. Planning started immediately with Secret Service, Obama's advance team and UI higher-ups.

"There were several days of planning and walk-throughs and meetings. Then you come to a number," he said, adding they settled Wednesday on the amount of help needed for Friday.

Like other special events in either Champaign or Urbana, local police help each other.

The UI's Division of Intercollegiate Athletics pays for extra police staffing at football and basketball games, so getting officers to sign up for that coveted overtime is simple. Extra police help for other kinds of events is not always compensated, so the agencies absorb that cost.

"It isn't unheard of to help the neighbor. We all help each other nightly, daily," said Urbana police Lt. Jason Norton. "Something like this, when it's thrown at you, we all pull together and do what we have to do."

"Overplanning has to happen. It's part of the job," Norton said.

Norton had one meeting with Geis and numerous texts between himself, Geis and the Secret Service for his part in the planning.

Champaign police sent four officers; Urbana and the Champaign County Sheriff's Office each sent three.

Champaign police Lt. Bruce Ramseyer said he had no problem finding willing officers.

"It is unique for people to be included in a detail with the Secret Service. Most (officers) can't say they've done that in their lives. It's a big event, something that doesn't happen all the time," he said.

New UI Police Chief Craig Stone asked that all officers wear their dress uniforms. That included hats, which officers don't normally wear on daily patrol. It also meant pulling out the protective rain gear.

 

'He's no taller than me'

One of the perks for area police and firefighters in management positions was a chance to be photographed, assembly-line style, with Obama backstage at Foellinger Auditorium. They will be sent photos in about a month. No selfies were allowed.

Urbana's interim deputy police chief, Bob Fitzgerald, took advantage of the offer. So did Champaign Police Chief Anthony Cobb, Sheriff Dan Walsh, Sheriff's Chief Deputy Allen Jones and Division Chief Derrick Odle of the Urbana Fire Department, to name a few.

"It was nice. He just shook hands and thanked us for setting everything up," said Fitzgerald, who sheepishly admitted he had little to do with the process.

"He seemed very nice. He's an impressive person. I did learn one thing. He's no taller than me — 6 feet, 2 inches. He always looked 6-5 on TV," Fitzgerald said.

Geis, who was in his car most of Friday, gave his spot in the photo-op line to Ballinger.

"It's a unique opportunity that everybody should enjoy, not just the command people," Geis said.

Ballinger, who also helped with crowd control when Obama went to Caffe Paradiso, called the former president "extremely pleasant, very personable."

Ballinger's son has a picture of himself in front of Air Force One from a few years back when then-President Obama visited Hill Air Force Base in Utah, where he was stationed. Ballinger couldn't help but be a little excited at one-upping his son with his photo.

But he was just as excited about the student who bought him an iced coffee during the few minutes Obama was at the coffee shop.

"It was super nice," Ballinger said.