Prince George’s Co. police ready for deluge of MGM visitors

WASHINGTON — The MGM National Harbor Casino and Resort, which opens Thursday, is expected to draw tens of thousands of visitors over the next several weeks, which poses several new challenges to the Prince George’s County Police Department.

People who live in and around Fort Washington, Maryland, have expressed their concerns about traffic and parking, and much has been done to come up with a plan to keep cars moving as efficiently as possible. But the county police have been thinking about how to keep people safe since well before the first shovel of dirt was turned on the project.

“I would say unprecedented is definitely a term we use up here,” said Deputy Chief Chris Murtha of the preparations for the opening.

“This venue is presenting some unique challenges to the police department, but we have had two years to prepare and get ourselves in position to really make sure that we get to examine all the minute details of a new operation like this.”

His department has been seeking advice from a long list of organizations and agencies in law enforcement and the casino industry. Asked whom it includes, and he replied, “anybody who would have us.

“We’ve reached out to MGM, and their executive management team.  We’ve … met with members of Las Vegas police and the MGM corporate staff out there, so we could gain some insight not only into operations around MGM but what we might expect as a police agency outside of MGM and with issues surrounding MGM.”

There have been discussions with FBI agents based in both the Washington Field Office and the Baltimore Field Office, which handles all federal investigations in Maryland. There were visits with police in Atlantic City, New Jersey, where gambling has long been legal. And Prince George’s County officers made sure to pick the brains of local colleagues who have experience with gaming.

“Having Maryland Live! and the Anne Arundel County Police Department,  and the Horseshoe Casino and Baltimore City Police Department, gave us some great insight,” said Murtha, who adds the insight, “has been invaluable to creating what we think is an operational plan that really begs, borrows, and steals from everybody else’s best laid plans.”

Different sorts of problems

What they heard from those local police agencies didn’t quite match up with what they were expecting to hear.

“What we expected was certainly a lot of issues around gaming cheats and that sort of crime,” Murtha said. “And what we found was those things weren’t necessarily the things that were going to be the largest issues surrounding an entertainment venue like this.”

Tony Grover, of the Anne Arundel County Police Department’s Arundel Mills Mall substation, said while a casino introduces certain unique types of crime, it’s also probably one of the very last places anyone would want to commit a crime.

“It’s the volume of the people; it’s the crowds that’s the hardest thing,” said Grover.  “That’s the biggest challenge that we’ve seen.”

Lt. Ryan Frasure, an Anne Arundel County Police spokesman, estimates that 90 to 95 percent of incidents inside Maryland Live! get handled by the casino’s security staff first. Grover credits the dress code as the first line of defense.

“It holds [their clientele] to a certain standard,” said Grover.  “I don’t know the dynamics behind it but it works.  It weeds people out.”

“We’re there in case we’re needed,” said Frasure. “Some of the things we handle most frequently are, like, trespassing complaints” involving someone who has been banned by the casino for reasons such as unruliness or being underage.

“I would think most of the stuff we enforce is if someone doesn’t want to leave and they become disorderly after security asks them to leave. That’s when they’ll ask us to intervene.

Frasure said a lot of time just the police presence leads to compliance.

Robbery a problem? Yes and no

Beyond that, Frasure said, they’ll deal with the occasions simple theft, conceding “anywhere that you have a large amount of money and a large volume of people, we get an occasional purse stolen or money stolen from a machine — those type of things.

“I think with as many cameras that are out there at any casino, I think that deters a lot of crime. The cameras coupled with their security force, supplemented by our officers out there in uniform that are working … I think that serves as a big deterrent.”

The reality is that, like any other business, a casino will be doomed to fail if its customers don’t feel safe about being there with their money.  And so when someone reports he has been robbed of his winnings somewhere in the casino or in its parking garage, police take it seriously.

“Our officers do a really good job of investigating that, working with security,” said Frasure, “Most times, 9 times out of 10, I’ll say, we usually … find out they’re lying and want to cover up their losses — don’t want to go home and tell the wife or husband that they lost all this money — so they say they were robbed. Then we end up charging them with filing a false report.”

Heavy financial losses can manifest themselves in other ways too, including domestic violence or suicidal threats, but that’s rare, Grover said, and usually doesn’t show up directly.

So when MGM opens its doors on Thursday, Murtha says officers in Prince George’s County believe they’ll be ready for anything and everything, but mostly that’ll just mean “the more mundane type of incidents.”

Like a nonstop Redskins game

In some respects, police say, it’ll be comparable to an event at FedEx Field, where 70,000 to 80,000 people converge, arriving at different times and from different places, before heading back home. The big difference, obviously, is that at MGM all those people will be coming at different times, and when they leave other people will come in to replace them.

The experiences that come from policing inside a major metropolitan area mean even this new venue won’t force the Prince George’s cops to work in uncharted territory.

To start, the department has already increased staffing. Murtha said the special operations unit working at National Harbor has added a new captain, lieutenant and sergeant, with a promise from Police Chief Hank Stawinski that “we will not be taking any resources away from existing communities.”

National Harbor straddles police District Four and District Seven, and officers from those districts aren’t expected to deal with National Harbor issues unless a major situation develops and they’re needed to provide backup.  But that’s protocol when certain situations arise anywhere in the county.

Police will look at the crowds flocking to MGM as a similar challenge to what they see from the crowds who show up at Redskins games or to events at the University of Maryland — especially for the first 30 days or so, a time considered the “celebratory period.” Extra officers will be on hand, working overtime shifts to make sure traffic flows and people are kept safe.

“We will make sure that we have an abundance of officers. Once we figure this out and it settles into a routine we can cut that back. But we’ll have officers there to address any of the concerns not only [from] the MGM National Harbor, but certainly our community around it,” Murtha said.

High-tech security

While all that is happening outside the venue, inside customers can expect layers of security technology so advanced that police are loath to talk about it.  At most, Stawinski will say “they have a very sophisticated surveillance system that’s wired throughout the MGM.”

What that means is that there’s no portion of this facility you can walk through where you’re not being recorded, Stawinski said.

For those who are part of what Stawinski calls the “criminal fraternity” and believe the casino offers new opportunities to commit crimes, “just understand from the moment you approach that facility to the moment you leave it, you are on camera and you can be identified.”

Most casinos now blanket their properties with facial recognition software and license plate readers, and while police won’t directly confirm that those technologies are used here, it has been implied when talking about broader tools they have at their disposal.

However, while police will have access to that technology if needed, remember most of what happens inside the venue, especially as it pertains to casino-specific crimes related to cheating, gets handled first and foremost by MGM’s security.  And that leaves police to primarily focus on the crowds and making sure people behave the way they’re supposed to behave.

“Our experience at FedEx Field, our experience so far at National Harbor, and our experience with large scale events at the University of Maryland have really prepared us,” Murtha said.

“With their entertainment venue, with their arena, we anticipate this is just going to be a long-term, indefinite special event for the Prince George’s County police. And we’re equipped to deal with that.”

John Domen

John started working at WTOP in 2016 after having grown up in Maryland listening to the station as a child. While he got his on-air start at small stations in Pennsylvania and Delaware, he's spent most of his career in the D.C. area, having been heard on several local stations before coming to WTOP.

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