Combing for contraband: Bag checks and their security measures

Photo by Luu Nguyen ASU bag checks are general procedures before games. Photo by Luu Nguyen

As friends reach for one another’s arms and hands, excitement forces pressure on the air and threatens to break their grasps. Masses of maroon and gold spirit-wear congregate in dense splotches along all sides of the stadium. Awaiting entrance, fans are packed into a line that slowly filters into the stadium like the rhythmic ticking of a metronome. Each game, it is a wonder how the mob squeezes in and somehow files neatly into the long parallel rows around the field.

At the head of this line, just before the attendees are released into the controlled chaos of the stadium, several flashlight-armed security guards stand to ask for open bags and inside-out pockets. According to ASU Police Sergeant Daniel Macias, the “size of the event constitutes appropriate security measures.” While attendees are only affected by bag searches at football games, the past graduation ceremony required a brief wanding (handheld metal detector) to grant entrance.

At the events which require higher security measures, both ASU Police and Professional Event Management (PRO EM) security are responsible for maintaining mayhem despite the flurry of fans charged with anticipation. To those who may think that two security forces are a little overkill, Assistant Chief Michele Rourke clarifies that the “police do not enforce policy, we enforce law.” While it is not the role of PRO EM to arrest, likewise it is not the role of the ASU Police to request that you return contraband to your car. However, if an individual refuses to return their picketed sign, alcohol or hazardous item to their car, ASU Police are available to step in and prevent any potential safety threat from being present in the stadium. PRO EM and the police are caught between respecting the policies and defending the individual rights of event attendees while still doing everything within their power to ensure overall safety.

Specifically regarding the brief bag checks outside games, Macias explains the general procedure. Unless the item deemed “contraband” is illegal, the person in possession is simply given “the opportunity to return the items to their car” rather than immediate confiscation. In the majority of cases, this request is as far as PRO EM needs to go.

Chief Michael Thompson explains that PRO EM security fulfills the role of bag checkers “look[ing] for contraband including alcohol, weapons, illegal substances, [etc.]”

The ASU Student/Parent Handbook outlines several items that are not allowed “before, during or after school or at school-sponsored activities.” This list mentions several rather surprising items including: balloons, gum, energy drinks, bandanas, mace and pepper spray, inappropriate stickers and sunflower seeds. While each of these could present some sort of problem or inconvenience, PRO EM generally searches for the items which could be immediately threatening in the event of a sudden brawl or riot such as weapons or miscellaneous sharp objects. Director of PRO EM, Glenn Rea, explains that security doesn’t enforce these policies “to hurt anyone” but only to ensure safety.

Explaining that those stopped with potentially dangerous items are only making an honest mistake, Rea says that bag checking rarely presents a serious problem. After working for PRO EM for over 20 years, Rea personally has run into a few unique surprises.

“People forget to take things out of their bags,” he says. He once found a complete and new set of pliers in a woman’s bag and on another occasion found “several decks of [playing] cards” in a woman’s purse. Other than these silly findings, attendees are asked not to bring inordinate amounts of food. Rourke says that some people attempt to bring in so much food it “looks like they are going camping for a week.” In this case, the problem is less about safety and more about just keeping the stadium clean -- the more food, the more likely it is that wrappers and trash will be left in the stadium. Overall, ASU and PRO EM are simply seeking to ensure a safe and enjoyable game experience for everyone.

Unfortunately, some students have felt their experiences a little less enjoyable because of misunderstandings with security. In an online survey, several students anonymously offered their opinions of bag checking at games. One anonymous computer science sophomore remembers playing Pokemon on his phone when a security guard confronted him. “I was wrongfully accused of bringing a flask to an ASU football game,” the student says. He remembers being asked to stand while another security guard searched his bag. Although the security guard apologized, the student continues to remember the incident as a “humiliating experience.” While the security guard was merely trying to do his job, the student clearly felt improperly and unnecessarily called out.

Another anonymous student recalls in the survey having a vuvuzela confiscated at the bag checking point on his or her way into the game. “He snatched it from me...and proceeded to throw it away without further discussion,” the student says. Clearly an unpleasant memory for this student as well, they felt the handling of the security guard was “impolite [and] improper.” In each circumstance, the students were obviously very offended at the security guards’ assumptions. These two instances raise questions to the frequency of any serious dangers.

However, if significant threats are in fact rare, this does not condone a lack of caution. “You shouldn’t look any less at a 90-year-old grandma,” Rourke explains in reference to the bag checks. Sometimes the grandmother’s children or grandchildren could slip something into her purse hoping to sneak it in.

“People get creative,” Rourke says, which is why after games you might still be able to see a few empty mini wine coolers sprinkled in sections of the stands. Although every single item may not be caught, PRO EM and ASU Police do as much as is within their power to prevent the presence or possibility of serious threats. In the bag-checking survey, an anonymous chemical engineering sophomore remembers hearing and seeing people sneak “alcohol and blades into the game(s) time and time again.” The student continues to say, “I’m not saying they should stop [the bag checks,] but I think that it is help people feel safer than they actually are.” Rourke acknowledges the role of the community in covering the bases and filling the inevitable gaps that occur with taking in such a huge influx of people just minutes before the game when she asks event attendees to call or notify an official when observing any suspicious people or objects. Something as subtle as a water bottle laying on the ground that seems to be growing could be a bomb hazard. When these hazards present themselves, event attendees may find comfort in knowing that the police and security staff are available on the scene.

According to the survey results, students opinion seems to be split between believing that the bag checks are a necessary safety precaution or an unnecessary hassle. An anonymous biological sciences freshman comments in the survey, “I understand the importance of bag checks, but they don’t ever seem to be very thorough.” The quick glances security guards throw over bags may seem cursory, however they appear to work well enough to avoid any serious issues.

Business freshman Abigail Swartz agrees that she feels safer with the bag checks “because there are so many people at such a large university.” However, while the security procedure has good intentions, she thinks that the bag checks are “more of a threat than an actual check.” In other words, when people know their bags will be checked, they are less likely to bring dangerous items in to the games.

Rourke says that finding illegal drugs through bag checks is rare “because people know they’ll be searched.”

From the survey, an anonymous economics senior concludes that “bag checks are one of those hassles that we have just come to agree exist...” Ultimately, it appears the brief pre-game checks are a mostly harmless procedure that is a small privilege to game attendees who feel an increased level of safety. The saying “Better safe than sorry” justifies this minimal inconvenience in light of alternatively dangerous outcomes and comforting caution.

Reach the writer at and on Twitter at @txashleyaz.

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