Raymond James Stadium in Tampa, Fla., the site of NFL football Super Bowl LV, is shown on Jan. 28.

Raymond James Stadium in Tampa, Fla., the site of NFL football Super Bowl LV, is shown on Jan. 28. Chris O'Meara / AP

Homeland Security Department Prepares for Super Bowl Amid the Pandemic

“We’re seeing seamless cooperation in all levels of the government,” said one DHS official. 

The Super Bowl will look a little different this year to due the ongoing novel coronavirus pandemic, but the Homeland Security Department is still deploying personnel and resources to help state and local law enforcement agencies combat human trafficking, counterfeit goods sales and other security risks that can occur at large events.

The Kansas City Chiefs will play the Tampa Bay Buccaneers this Sunday at the Raymond James Stadium in Tampa Bay, Florida, in the 55th Super Bowl. This year attendance will be capped to 22,000 individuals, which includes 7,500 health care workers the National Football League invited for free. The stadium can normally hold over 65,000 people. This has not stopped annual law enforcement operations, however.

“Pretty much every DHS agency has either organic resources in Tampa or has brought resources in from around the country,” Kevin Sibley, acting special agent in charge for Homeland Security Investigations in Tampa, told Government Executive. The event is local and “the federal government is really here to support.” 

Sibley added, “We’re seeing seamless cooperation in all levels of the government as far as information sharing, planning and preparation and we just hope that we have a great game.” For security purposes DHS typically does not release specific numbers of personnel, but Sibley said there is a “very large DHS presence here in Tampa.” 

Special Agent Brian Weinhaus, who is the unit chief at DHS’ National Intellectual Property Rights Coordination Center, said that officials from HSI-Los Angeles are among those coming to support and to learn for when their city hosts the Super Bowl next year.   

Operation Team Player is the initiative through the National Intellectual Property Rights Coordination Center, Homeland Security Investigations and its partners to crack down on counterfeit goods sales. Between the end of last year’s game and the start of this year’s game the agencies and their partners seized more than 169,000 items of fake sports memorabilia and other counterfeit goods, which were worth more than $44 million.

“[Homeland Security Investigations] also works with its public and private sector counterparts to identify and target human traffickers,” said a recent statement from DHS. “Leading up to and during the Super Bowl, HSI operations identify and rescue potential trafficking victims and work to prevent illicit activity from ever happening.” Federal, state and local law enforcement officials recovered a total of 20 suspected human trafficking victims, CBS Miami reported several weeks after last year’s Super Bowl.

This year, the coronavirus pandemic––which started spreading rapidly across the United States shortly after last year’s game––“has presented a number of unique challenges,” Sibley noted. “Law enforcement operations are inherently risky themselves: they’re dangerous in themselves and yet you throw in a global pandemic and our employees are subject to yet another risk that we can’t even see.”  

Weinhaus said, “We were prepared for changes due to COVID-19, but we still responded in the same way that we would for any other Super Bowl.” Everyone is wearing masks and social distancing when possible, he said, also noting that “most of the operations are probably outside or in large warehouse scenarios.” Another factor where they’re waiting to see the full impact is that one of the teams is playing in its home stadium for the first time in Super Bowl history.   

This year’s game also comes just over a month after the deadly insurrection at the U.S. Capitol, and DHS was one of the many law enforcement agencies involved in the response to that attack. 

“After any recent event we’re always looking at what threats are out there and how we need to respond and what lessons we learned from previous operations,” Sibley said, when asked if the Capitol attack had any impact on Super Bowl planning. “We’ve certainly applied that to the Super Bowl in our security preparations.” 

DHS announced on Tuesday that David Pekoske, acting deputy secretary and Transportation Security Administration administrator, will make an official visit to Tampa on Wednesday to meet with security officials, participate in a press conference, tour the Super Bowl operations center and stadium, and receive a briefing on DHS’ coordination with local and NFL officials. He served as acting DHS secretary until Tuesday, when Alejandro Mayorkas was confirmed. 

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