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Saturday, Nov 18, 2017
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O’Neill: Tampa getting better at Gasparilla Parade

Another year, another Gasparilla Parade season.

Truth be told, we have been getting better at it. Even after more than a century of staging. Even after a period where triage policing meant ignoring much too much.

I remember the turn-around.

Several years back I had a Gasparilla chat with former Mayor Pam Iorio. After talking about art museums, Curtis Hixon Park and budget reserves during challenging times, Gasparilla came up.

As someone who lives near Gasparilla Ground Zero, I was in a position to offer input. She listened. As someone who could morph into Charles Bronson once a year, I had a perspective. She nodded.

I began by making the case that megaparades — from Rio’s Carnaval to New York’s Macy’s Day to Philly’s Mummers to Pasadena’s Tournament of Roses — didn’t abut neighborhoods. That was the inherent problem here. She nodded again.

People recall what an excellent speaker the former mayor was. Well, she’s a good listener, too.

Bayshore Boulevard seems ideal, I acknowledged, and looks fabulous — especially in those aerial photos of floats wending their way along an aesthetic ribbon by a flotilla-filled Hillsborough Bay. We’re so lucky to have it. But the parade route — and the hundreds of thousands of revelers it attracts — was literally just a few strides, or stumbles, from a large residential neighborhood.

Those closest had to hire security and put up chain-link fencing. It amounted to legal, annual extortion. It was the unholiest of alliances. A local church and affiliated school even designated a “safe house” for less-than-ambulatory, drunken teens. That it was needed spoke volumes.

I suggested a return to the Gasparilla Parade of Pirates venue roots: Kennedy Boulevard. The mayor stopped nodding.

“That’s not going to happen,” she said.

Of course it wasn’t. But you start with the highest bar and then get real.

I mentioned those, uh, revelers who used private property for public liaisons, ad hoc vomitoriums, fistic duels and rites of pissage. They were encouraged by ineffective law enforcement and a culture seemingly resigned to a day without consequences. It hardly helped that alternative media staffers treated it as a class warfare celebration.

The mayor said, in effect, that we were better than this. And, by the way, maybe I could channel my inner Bronson into something less over-reactive.

Well, the rest is recent history. Some constituents’ cell-phone footage of what actually constituted “rowdy” behavior made an impression on public officials. Civic forums invited more input. Two mayors and Tampa Police Department leadership stepped up and made a difference.

They made sure a message — that Gasparilla was no longer an exception to societal norms — was sent. And that, more importantly, it was received. The sending part was done by a campaign that reached out to high schools and higher ed institutions and parents. The applicable laws — from underage drinking and open containers to coolers and beyond-the-pale behaviors — were laid out. Then they were enforced. Nobody likes being busted, and nobody likes having to go get their busted kid.

Not only was there literally more law enforcement — but it was much better deployed. No longer were frustrated locals seeing a gaggle of officers shooting the breeze at an intersection while nearby streets and, especially, alleys went unmonitored. Moreover, the parade became more spread out, with Curtis Hixon Waterfront Park becoming a major draw. Additional port-a-potties along the route also helped.

The numbers are telling. This year there were 42 Gasparilla-related arrests. That’s down a third from last year. More notably, it was 349 in 2011. The best policing is still self-policing.

The previous week’s Children’s Parade, which is hardly child-sized any more, is a prime example of what happens when people come to an event for all the right reasons. The logistics of a six-figure crowd, of course, will always be challenging — but arrests and unbecoming behavior were nil. It can be done.

Of course, we’re now in the post-Boston Marathon era. So there was extra Gasparilla security in the form of portable watch towers, pole-topped video cameras and cruising bomb-squad carts.

Ironically, Tampa, a place that used to give laissez faire a bad name, is increasingly looked at now as a model city for crowd control of supersized events. We do Super Bowls and various Final Fours routinely and held a major political convention without incident in 2012.

Speaking of the latter, let’s not forget the context of the Republican National Convention, which had the world’s attention. The stated threats were of trash-and-burn anarchists, but the biggest gut fear was a terrorist bomb or bombs — via cargo or suicide attacks. Yes, the trade-off was a suffocating, downtown military-zone ambience, but there are no municipal mulligans if something goes horrifically wrong. Nothing did and people with security perspective noticed.

That’s one of the reasons many law enforcement officials from as far as Dallas and Los Angeles were in town over Gasparilla. They were here to observe and consult on evolving security concerns, crime-fighting strategies and jurisdictional coordination.

They wanted to see for themselves how this area handled a long parade with a half-million onlookers and hundreds of boaters — in this sobering, post-Boston Marathon, new normal.

By all accounts, they were impressed — as were those who live here.

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