As the August solar eclipse approaches, Casper police are preparing to manage tens of thousands of visitors coming for the weekend festival.
In addition to tightening up standard operations — no police department employees will be allowed to take time off during the five days of festivities — CPD is taking special measures, such as contracting with a phone-based translation service to assist foreign visitors during emergencies.
“An officer can provide the phone to the individual in distress if they speak a foreign language and within five to 10 seconds they’ll be connected to a translator,” Lt. Shane Chaney told City Council recently.
An area of central Casper will be closed to street parking and patrolled by officers on bicycle. Other special patrol teams include officers assigned to work the dozens of events scheduled during the weekend and patrols focused on bars.
City Council agreed on a “zero tolerance” policy for rowdy drunken behavior at the behest of councilman and former police chief Chris Walsh.
“That doesn’t mean go in there with the dogs and the nightsticks and the gas,” Walsh said.
But he said that police officers needed to know they have the support of city leadership to clamp down on drunken behavior in a festival environment. Mayor Kenyne Humphrey agreed.
“I’m fine with zero tolerance,” she said.
Between 25,000 and 35,000 people are expected to visit or stay in Casper between Aug. 17 and the Aug. 21 total solar eclipse.
Chaney said the department had prepared patrol vans — for “those unfortunate enough to get arrested” — and was looking at opening the municipal court on the weekend.
He added that while the current plans are still be finalized, some enforcement efforts would be kept secret.
“I don’t want that stuff out there where people can use that as a tactic against us,” Chaney said.
Local law enforcement will be coordinating with the Department of Homeland Security during the festival to stay updated on potential threats to public safety.
Parking, traffic a major concern
Some issues still need to be resolved. For example, should local residents be permitted to use street parking where they live, even if those areas are closed to public parking? There’s also the matter of arranging a tow yard to impound illegally parked cars.
Officials have already decided that public street parking will be barred in a roughly square-shaped area of downtown bounded by Spruce Street to the west, Park Street to the east, B Street to the north and Fifth street to the south.
Parking enforcement and traffic management will be a priority for the department. A draft document of police plans from early May states that traffic patrol will switch from proactive to reactive enforcement, meaning that officers will spend their time responding to crashes and congestion rather than seeking out speeders.
Despite concerns expressed by City Council members, most major road construction on state roads around Casper is expected to conclude by the August eclipse.
The document, created by Interim Chief Steve Schulz, identified five major intersections that are especially prone to collisions:
CY Avenue and Wyoming Boulevard;
East Second Street and Wyoming Boulevard;
South Poplar at both CY Avenue and First Street;
South Beverly Street and East Second Street.
Documents describing how city departments are preparing for the eclipse were obtained by the Star-Tribune through a public records request.
Chaney said one goal will be to ensure that traffic runs smoothly enough on major thoroughfares like Wyoming Boulevard that police and the Wyoming Highway Patrol will be able to move around town.
Councilman Charlie Powell raised the question of whether Casper streets would be able to accommodate the larger vehicles that some visitors are expected to arrive in.
“We’re going to have these big buses coming through town and I don’t know if we’ve ever had 30 or 40 on Second Street at the same time,” Powell said. “How are we going to get people to the hospital?”
Chaney said that Wyoming Medical Center would have a helicopter on standby that can respond to medical emergencies anywhere in Natrona County within 15 minutes and noted that Second Street will be closed to traffic through Beech Street at the Nicolaysen Art Museum.
He also said police are discussing installing temporary signage around what Walsh called “ancient choke points” where vehicles cross under the interstate and large trucks can easily become stuck.
Chaney estimated the costs for overtime and operations during the eclipse will be around $80,000.
Interim City Manager Liz Becher has requested an additional $300,000 for the city’s variable expenses fund, which will be used to pay for eclipse-related activity.
“We’ll be... hoping not to expend it all,” Becher said.
Unlike the county government, which announced it will be closing its offices during the eclipse festival, Becher said the City of Casper plans to remain open.
A map showing where parking will and won’t be allowed, along with viewing areas and campgrounds, has been published on the online Casper GIS system. It can be accessed under the Solar Eclipse 2017 tab at geosmart.casperwy.gov.
Other public safety planning is also in the final planning stages.
A draft plan for the Casper Fire Department calls for doubling regular staffing levels across the city and the purchase of additional medical equipment in case of emergencies.
“The difficulty with planning for a multi-day event of this magnitude is we do not have a comparable experience to use as a guideline,” Chief Kenny King wrote in the document.
Detailed planning by law enforcement is evidence that Casper is ready to accommodate the August crowds, Vice Mayor Ray Pacheco said.
“The public needs to know that Casper will be prepared,” he said. “The apocalypse isn’t going to take place.”