Shortly after news spread that gun-toting terrorists had launched a deadly siege on Mumbai, 75 blue-and-white police cars carrying 150 officers fanned out across Manhattan, lights flashing.
Their mission: To quickly shore up security with a show of force outside the Waldorf Astoria, New York Palace and other marquee hotels.
The response, though strictly precautionary, demonstrated that the deadly attack in India had far-reaching implications for police and private security officials in New York and other U.S. cities.
“I think that this could be a wake-up call,” said Robert Grenier, a former CIA official with the Kroll Security Group.
Some suspect the Mumbai attackers had inside help, which points to the need for aggressive screening and monitoring of hotel workers, Grenier said. The assault in India likely involved extensive reconnaissance — another lesson in the need for constant vigilance in spotting and confronting suspicious visitors, he said.
But hotels face a delicate balancing act.
“We have some guests who pay an exorbitant amount to stay in our hotels, and security is a level of inconvenience,” said Jimmy Chin, who heads security at the New York Palace and chairs the security committee for the Hotel Association of New York. At the same time, after Mumbai made headlines, “There’s an expectation to see security,” he added.
The attacks in India have been a hot topic in Chicago’s hotel industry, said Kevin Boland, a marketing manager at the city’s Drake Hotel.
The 535-room Drake, a landmark city hotel skirting posh Michigan Avenue boutiques, reviewed its security measures in the wake of the attacks and “realigned” some security staff, Boland said.
“Like what happened in India, we don’t want to be in the situation of where we weren’t prepared,” he said. “People can get bogged down in paperwork and what happened (in India) can change your priorities.”
In Los Angeles, police have been studying the Mumbai attacks and are considering sending investigators there to learn more.
“We look at these new kinds of tactics and the way they orchestrated this and modify our approach,” said Deputy Chief Michael Downing, who heads the Los Angeles Police Department’s counterterrorism unit.
Police in New York and Los Angeles have programs to share intelligence and security tips with large businesses, including hotels, through Web sites, closed-door briefings and seminars. The NYPD also has beefed up patrols outside major hotels since the attacks in India.
Unlike fortified hotels in international trouble spots, the U.S. hotels haven’t resorted to heavily armed guards, checkpoints or other drastic measures to deter terror. Besides what’s visible — plainclothes security agents and surveillance cameras — major chains are reluctant give specifics about their security.
Asked about any additional safeguards at the Hilton-operated Waldorf Astoria in midtown and the Millennium Hilton across from ground zero in lower Manhattan, the chain would only say it always makes safety a top priority.
“Further, many of the actions we are taking are, of necessity, invisible to our customers,” Hilton said in a statement.
It’s unlikely that any hotel, no matter how exemplary its security, could fend off a concerted, Mumbai-style attack on its own, said John Serafini, co-owner of Elite Protection, an Illinois-based security firm that counts several large Chicago hotels as clients.
“As far as engaging an armed assault as the one in India, I don’t know if anyone is fully prepared to repel an attack on that scale,” he said. “Even if a hotel has a fully armed staff, it is still a dangerous proposition to engage an attack like that.”