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Police plan major effort to ensure safe New Year

Protests and terrorism join drunk driving and celebratory gunfire on police New Year lookout list

Police in Baltimore will be backed up by state troopers and federal authorities as they seek to keep New Year's Eve celebrations in the city safe amid planned protests and heightened concern about international terrorism.

Col. Melissa Hyatt, the Police Department's chief of patrol, said authorities have spent months planning for the evening, which will likely see tens of thousands throng the Inner Harbor to usher in 2016 with a concert and fireworks display.

"We want all residents and visitors to have a safe and memorable experience," Hyatt said.

Major downtown events in the past have occasionally been marred by violence. This year, police have the job of keeping people safe from run-of-the-mill altercations and drunken drivers while managing protests and planning for the remote possibility of responding to a terror threat.

Hyatt declined to provide many details of the police's plans but said most officers would be deployed in the downtown area, where they would be backed up by state troopers.

"We will have a large contingent of police officers across the city" tomorrow night, Hyatt said at a news conference Wednesday. "Many of these officers will be visible but we will also have unseen resources across the city committed to making these festivities safe and successful."

Michael Greenberger is director of the Center for Health and Homeland Security at the University of Maryland.

While authorities face a range of challenges, he said, the large number of officers on hand gives police the ability to respond to whatever comes up.

"Really, worrying about terrorists, worrying about protests getting out of hand and worrying about extraordinary street crime … are of a piece," he said.

The festivities will close a tumultuous year in Baltimore, which saw the death of Freddie Gray, protests and rioting, and a spike in violent crime that led to the city's highest-ever homicide rate per capita.

Organizers with the activist group Baltimore Bloc said they are planning one last demonstration: an 11 p.m. protest to mark the death of Tamir Rice, the unarmed 12-year-old boy who was killed by police in Cleveland. A grand jury this week declined to file charges against officers in his death.

"Your New Year Eve Party? We're Shutting It Down," the group tweeted this week. "We won't let the TRUTH stay silent just to comfort your privilege."

The group called on supporters to assemble at the Inner Harbor amphitheater, the center of the city's official celebration.

Hyatt said police will seek to balance the desires of people who want to watch the show with those who want to protest.

"It is part of our role to protect the safety of those who are exercising that right," she said. "However, with that being said, illegal behavior will not be tolerated, and we will ensure that the rights of those who wish to exercise their First Amendment right will not infringe on those who wish to come downtown and enjoy the celebration."

The year closes amid increased worry about terrorism after the deadly attacks in Paris and San Bernardino, Calif. Officials in Turkey and Belgium arrested people this week who they said had been planning attacks on New Year's Eve. The mayor of Brussels, where authorities believe the Paris attacks were planned, canceled fireworks.

Police in New York City are planning to flood Times Square with more than 5,000 officers and deploy a new, heavily armed team of counterterrorism police.

Brian Nadeau, a counterterrorism official at the Baltimore FBI office, said authorities have a single source of information about threats against New York, Washington and Los Angeles, but no indication that Baltimore is at risk.

Nadeau said the FBI will watch for new threats and work with state and local agencies to share information.

"You're always concerned about lone wolves who are sitting at home alone thinking of some kind of target they could attack," he said.

In Baltimore, police will have the primary responsibility for dealing with any problem. Hyatt said officers have been taking extra precautions since the bombing at the Boston Marathon in 2013.

Outside downtown, each of the city's police districts will also see more officers, and officials will be watching the streets using their network of surveillance cameras.

Hyatt said police are concerned about people firing their guns in the air to celebrate. A 10-year-old Elkton girl was killed by a stray bullet on New Year's Eve 2012; two other people in Maryland have been wounded in recent years.

"It's critical to remind people, what goes up must come down," Hyatt said.

Beyond Baltimore, police efforts will focus on drunken-driving enforcement.

"We will be paying attention to places where people will gather for celebrations and will be on the lookout for drunk drivers," Baltimore County police spokesman Cpl. John Wachter said.

State Police Maj. Bill Dofflemyer said troopers will also be working to catch people who take to the roads while intoxicated.

Even for the sober, driving in Baltimore could be difficult. Some downtown streets will be closed beginning at 7 p.m., with restrictions on traffic tightening through the evening.

Hyatt said parking garages could also fill up. She encouraged people to be flexible with their plans.

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