It’s 90 degrees, and you’re waiting in line, except it’s more of a swarm of sweaty people herding toward the entrance, trying to get into Coachella. The wind stirs up dust, which blows in your eyes, sticks to your skin and coats your hair. A person passes out in line because of the heat. The medics and security come to help the potentially drugged, but likely sun-baked, dehydrated person. The herd of people pushes closer to the security personnel for a bag check in hopes to get in and begin their adventures around the Polo fields.
Security has always been considered a nuisance. No one likes being touched, border-line groped and patted down by strangers who then dig through your bags looking for something to take. No one enjoys having to look over your shoulder when you’re trying to spark up a joint at sunset during your favorite band’s set. But after the Route 91 Harvest Festival tragedy in Las Vegas that left nearly 60 people dead and 527 injured, nothing is more vital to a festival than organized security.
At a pop-culture mecca like Coachella, where each weekend lures 125,000 people—many of whom are celebrities—and hosts A-list performers such as Beyoncé, Radiohead, Sir. Paul McCartney, Prince (RIP), Madonna, etc. Coachella is a target. It always has been—and so is every other big festival. But in the wake of what happened in Las Vegas, the veil’s been lifted: Festivals are high-risk environments any way you look at them.
According to Sgt. Daniel Marshall of the Indio Police Department, security plans for Coachella begin a year in advance. “We connect with local law enforcement to help make this all come together,” he says. “We meet right after the festival and go over what went well and what could’ve gone better. It’s also not only [Indio PD] out there. There’s Palm Springs PD, Cathedral City PD, Desert Hot Springs, RSO, CHP, Banning PD, Beaumont PD, and the FBI.”
In other words, if anything were to go wrong (god forbid), the right people are on the premises to diffuse the situation—or keep it from happening entirely. But something most people don’t take into consideration, Sgt. Marshall contends, is the fact that there is so much more to public safety than just security. “It’s traffic, ingress, egress, internal flow inside and outside the venue, check-ins, check-outs, credentialing, the searches, and the overall general flow,” he says.
While driving into the blue parking lot on Friday night, cops stopped the car I was in before parking on the premises. They checked our wristbands, which is standard– but then they brought out the drug-dog. A cop circled our car three times allowing the dog to thoroughly sniff-out the vehicle. Although we know the dog was sniffing for drugs, it’s even more likely he was sniffing for other things, such as explosives, gunpowder, etc. In my nine years of attending the festival, I’ve never experienced a police dog on the way into the festival. Although I was nervous (who knows, the dog might smell the remnants of the joint I smoked last week?), it was oddly comforting to witness intensive security measures.
Walking through security on Saturday, a middle-aged female security guard with a long blond ponytail searched my bags–and I somehow managed to leave one of my favorite King Harvest Wellness indica tinctures in my backpack. When she found it, she confiscated it. “You should keep it,” I said to her. “It’s a really great brand, and that product is excellent if you have pain or struggle with insomnia.”
She looked at me like I was a nutcase and pointed toward a set of palm trees that stood to my left. “Do you see those trees over there?,” she asked me, to which I responded yes. “There are cameras in those trees and they’re directed right at us. There are people sitting on the other end of those cameras watching us right now. If I were to take this from you, I’d lose my job.”
She launched my tincture into the amnesty box, never to be seen again—a devastating blow to my canna-loving heart and my 4/20 week celebrations. But the security woman (who wouldn’t tell me her name) explained that all of Coachella is essentially under surveillance. Not only are there cameras placed throughout the festival for the safety of attendees, but there are also multiple layers of security involved in the event, all of which have different responsibilities.
The female guard and those checking bags with her were the perimeter security, who performed the first round of searches. She explained their job is to look for drugs, weapons, and other items that aren’t allowed into the festival, such as open water bottles, glass, unsealed food, etc. They’re also responsible for patting people down to make sure attendees have nothing physically on them.
There’s a designated security group in the campgrounds who are in charge of helping people locate their campsites after the show, responding to any beer-pong calamities and being first to the scene if someone succumbs to the effects of heat, booze, and substances. They’re also responsible for checking-in campers pre-festival and performing car searches. The campgrounds also have cops strolling around on horseback. “Watch out for horse dung,” the blonde security woman warned. “You wouldn’t want to smell like shit during Beyoncé.” She’s right.
The security woman explained the internal festival security are responsible for breaking up fights, helping people who party too hard or get dehydrated. They’re also responsible for catching people doing things they’re not supposed to, such as smoking weed, selling drugs, negatively impacting public safety etc. There’s also security assigned for the VIP areas and beer gardens.
Coachella attendees expressed mixed feelings about security and safety at music festivals. “Coachella has always been my happy place,” said Kiarra from Solana Beach. “Even though it’s super possible for something to really awful to happen here, I trust that [Goldenvoice] knows what they’re doing.”
It hadn’t crossed some attendees minds that Coachella could be a target. And, honestly, it is hard to imagine something tragic happening because– it won’t happen to us, right? It’s difficult and disturbing to think about. But we have to because this is the new normal. One young couple from Arizona, Tristian and Shellina, explained their “festival-squad” had determined meeting spots inside and outside the festival in the event of something happening. “We wrote down each other’s numbers in case phone lines go down or service is unavailable,” says Shellina, as we stood inside the thumping structure of the Do Lab. “I’ve been scared to go to festivals ever since what happened in Vegas, but you can’t let a ‘what-if’ situation keep you from living your life. You just have to prepare the best you possibly can.”
“I had a friend at the Route 91 fest,” said Tristian. “He lived, but he didn’t want to go to Coachella because he’s still not over what happened. How can you be?”
Security and police presence sometimes aren’t enough, especially if a nightmare situation happens. Since the Harvest Route 91 Festival, large-scale events are incorporating low profile rifle professionals on premises in case active shooters or an act of terrorism takes place. In our quest to understand how Coachella’s prepared for the event security-wise, we spotted two armed scouts inside the festival—one above VIP watching over the Coachella stage and another above the palm trees of the Outdoor Theatre stage. Although this is the first time we’ve noticed this type of security at the festival, it’s safe to assume they’ve been there in past years. Moreover, these types of precautionary measures are the future of high profile events. The new normal is creating a new standard, and Coachella’s implementing it.
There was also a lot of buzz about the usage of drones as a means of monitoring attendees in the festival. But Sgt. Marshall explains there are laws prohibiting the use of drones over crowds. “We can use [drones] to see how traffic is flowing and if there are any issues in regards to the flow of cars and people in and out of the festival,” he says. “We also have a lot of open field where we can check perimeter fencing to make sure things are up and working. But unless it is a public safety concern, we are required to abide by all rules and FAA ordinances that keep us from flying drones over crowds.”
Planning security measures a year in advance is reassuring as a festival attendee. This year was the first time I experienced anxiety about attending Coachella in fear of my worst nightmare coming true. But on the premises, I felt nothing but safe—even though I had to sacrifice my favorite tincture to the Coachella gods. “We want people to have a great time and feel safe,” says Sgt. Marshall. “The safety of attendees is our team’s absolute priority, which is why we work so hard to ensure all our bases are covered.”