Behind the Scenes With the Cops Who Contain LSU's Game Day Frenzy

SI spent an entire Saturday following Baton Rouge law enforcement through every step of keeping an LSU home game under control. From the command center to the field to the processing room, everyone was already bracing for Alabama's visit.
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BATON ROUGE, La. — The black binder tucked under Marshall Walters’s arm is more valuable than just about anything on LSU’s campus during this overcast Saturday in October. It looks no different than the binders used by college students before iPads and laptops became the note-taking standard, only this one houses important information to keep this place protected on one of the busiest days of the year: an LSU football home game.

Walters is careful with the binder, unzipping its cover to give an inquiring mind the slightest peek at the contents inside: bundles of stacked papers. “This,” he gestures to the binder, “is our football.” Moments later, from a room deep within Tiger Stadium, Walters places the opened binder on a lectern, looks out to more than 300 uniform-wearing men and women seated before him and kicks off the day for the most essential people at any major college football game day: law enforcement officers.

1 p.m. CT: Roll call

Game day begins for law enforcement officers with a “roll call” meeting in a lecture room at Tiger Stadium. LSU Police Maj. Marshall Walters reads information from a binder while standing at the lectern.

Game day begins for law enforcement officers with a “roll call” meeting in a lecture room at Tiger Stadium. LSU Police Maj. Marshall Walters reads information from a binder while standing at the lectern.

About five minutes into his opening statement, Walters steps aside to give way to his boss. Bart Thompson is a 40-year veteran of the force who’s in his second year as chief of the LSU campus police, and he’s a serious man who shows a lighter side during an unusual announcement. Sports Illustrated is in the house, he tells the room, for its Swimsuit Edition. Officers burst into laughter. The 59-year-old chief turns back serious, informing his crew that an SI reporter plans to shadow officers ahead of LSU’s 6 p.m. game against Mississippi State at Tiger Stadium.

Every Saturday for a game-day cop is winding and unpredictable. Many of them walk well over 10,000 steps, or more than five miles, during a 16-hour day. They literally put out fires: Sometimes, intoxicated tailgaters can get clumsy with their propane tanks and charcoal grills. They monitor the entirety of campus through a whopping 1,400 cameras inside and outside of Tiger Stadium. They patrol streets and regulate traffic in black SUVs, on blue-painted bicycles and atop monstrous Clydesdales. They break up brawls and load arrestees into paddy wagons. They escort dignitaries and celebrities (Tom Cruise attended a game in 2015), and they bust scalpers selling fraudulent tickets. They do it all together, four agencies working in unison to make safe one of the wildest game-day atmospheres in American sports.

The day begins with the officers congregating in a theater-style lecture room inside the stadium to get the day’s agenda, assignments and other notes from that binder in a meeting referred to as “roll call.” Many of them gather in their own cliques: East Baton Rouge Parish Sheriff deputies in their green uniforms, Louisiana State Police troopers in their blue, LSU campus police in gray and a select few Baton Rouge Police Department officers whose colleagues are, five hours before kickoff, in the heat of traffic duty. One big, happy game-day family.

“Doesn’t matter the shape of your badge or color of your uniform,” says Thompson, “it takes all of us.” Walters, a ranking major with the LSU campus police, is finishing up his roll call speech when he slides in a joke. “Because y’all work so hard, we’re giving you off next weekend,” he says to a few chuckling officers. There is no home game next Saturday because the Tigers will be on their bye.

Walters isn’t done yet. After all, he’d be remiss if he didn’t remind this group what follows the off weekend, on Nov. 3: the biggest, baddest game day of the year. “The bad news,” he says, “when you come back, it’s Bama.”

1:50 p.m.: The MAC

Officers and other officials gather in a computer lab at LSU’s College of Business, which has been turned into a game day command center. 

Officers and other officials gather in a computer lab at LSU’s College of Business, which has been turned into a game day command center. 

On any other day of the week, the first floor of LSU’s E.J. Ourso College of Business houses a computer lab. On seven Saturdays in the fall, that lab is transformed into the multi-agency command center (MAC), one of two used by officers on game day, with the other in the press box of Tiger Stadium. Representatives from each agency monitor events here via campus cameras and radio them to game-day foot soldiers.

Eric Maxwell, an IT manager for the school, surveys the 25,000 on-campus parking spots through two desktop computers, one showing a Twitter feed and the other displaying live feeds from on-campus cameras. “It’s a giant game of triage,” Maxwell says. “We have all the problems of a major city in a three-mile block. Tiger Stadium is the fifth-largest city in Louisiana when full and then there are 30,000 more on campus.”

LSU officials are expecting about 150,000 people on campus for the Alabama game, says assistant athletics director David Taylor, the school’s game and event manager. He expects to start seeing the frames of tailgating tents erected the Wednesday evening of game week. “There’s going to be a party on every nook and cranny on campus,” he says. The school is preparing to host College GameDay, ESPN’s popular traveling pregame show, and the game has been a sellout for months. The cheapest ticket on the secondary market is around $250, and some lower bowl seats are available for between $800 and $1,300.

The annual SEC West showdown will kick off at 7 p.m. CT, occupying CBS’s primetime doubleheader slot for an eighth consecutive season. This one has the makings of the biggest duel between these two programs since the 2011 Game of the Century, a 9–6 Tigers win in overtime. It’s their highest-ranked clash—Alabama is No. 1 in the AP Poll and LSU is No. 4—since 2012, and LSU could climb higher by kickoff if Clemson or Notre Dame lose in Week 9. “This is going to be the Alabama-LSU Game of the Century,” says East Baton Rouge Parish sheriff Sid Gautreaux, a 69-year-old lifelong Tigers fan who’s so wrapped up in the purple-and-gold that he gets a sideline pass and locker room access for each game.

LSU subsidizes law enforcement’s work on game days. Gautreaux estimates it costs the school $200,000 a game, or about $1.5 million a year, just for hourly officers. Thompson and his game day supervisors meet weekly with LSU officials during the season. With Alabama coming to town, the bye doesn’t mean an off week. “We’re trying to do as much as possible this week,” Taylor says.

Back at the MAC, Auburn–Ole Miss is playing on a flat screen fixed to a wall. Officials monitor other SEC games for unusual events, like a large-scale campus crime or any other irregularity on game day elsewhere. “If something happens, we need to know,” Thompson says. Game day commanders at the 14 SEC schools communicate regularly. About three years ago, they began holding weekly teleconferences to discuss such things as new security technology and travel schedules. Thompson expects to spend hours this week and next week on the phone with Alabama’s stadium commander, discussing the Tide’s game-day agenda, among so much else. “We want to make sure their fans have the same game experience as our fans do when they visit there,” Thompson says.

2:15 p.m.: A Cajun lunch

Lunch is on the house. Today’s menu items include chicken gumbo, fried pork loin and deep-fried turkey, set up buffet-style within multiple tents positioned under an oak tree. “We’re cop-friendly at this tailgate!” someone shouts toward the crew of game day supervisors.

Baton Rouge and LSU have embraced law enforcement after a turbulent past. In the summer of 2016, a wave of incidents turned the nation’s eyes to Louisiana’s capital city when one Baton Rouge Police officer shot and killed an armed black man outside of a convenience store seven miles from Tiger Stadium. The death of Alton Sterling resulted in protests, one of which led to 102 arrests. Twelve days later, a former U.S. Marine drove from his Kansas City home to Baton Rouge for a retaliation massacre. He shot and killed two Baton Rouge police officers and one EBR sheriff’s deputy, while injuring one more policeman and two more deputies.

Less than a month after the shooting, a 1,000-year flood submerged south Louisiana, causing damages to more than 140,000 homes and leading to 30,000 rescues. LSU’s campus was partially under water, and according to Gautreaux, 200 of the sheriff department’s 865 employees had their homes flooded. The department had another deputy shot and killed last spring while issuing a warrant, and a few months later, headquarters sustained so much water damage from a busted pipe that deputies were displaced for a year.

“I can tell you in the history of the sheriff’s office, entire history, we’ve never had such a rough year as that year,” Gautreaux says. “It brought the whole law enforcement community together, and not just the law enforcement but the whole community together.”

The sheriff’s department supplies more officers than any other agency for LSU game days. This year, Gautreaux has pulled deputies from six surrounding parishes for game day duty, the most ever. Many of them are dressed in uniform, with a badge on their chest or their rank and name sewn on their lapel. Others, like John Dempre, are decked out in LSU gear—purple and gold baseball caps, white LSU polo shirts, even one in a Leonard Fournette jersey. They’re part of the “plainclothes squad.”

Dempre, a 42-year-old Baton Rouge native, has been doing this for 18 years, and he’s made friends with tailgating fans who know his identity. They alert him of any suspicious activity around their tailgate through text message. Not all of them are alerts. Some are invitations. “A game day doesn’t go by that I don’t get a, ‘You’re going to come by and eat some fried fish, right?’” Dempre says.

In the craziest incident he’s ever seen, Dempre was working as a plainclothes officer in LSU’s student section when he sprung into action during a crowd-surfing incident involving Mike the Tiger. “Not the real tiger,” Dempre explains, “but the cheerleader in the mascot suit.” Students passed the mascot from the field level to the top of the student section, where deputies intervened with Mike just a couple of rows from toppling 200 feet out of the stadium. “They were going to throw him off!” Dempre says. “We had to grab him.”

3:40 p.m.: Visitors’ arrival

Before serving in his current post, Doug Cain, the State Police captain, spent 15 years as the security detail for the opposing head football coach. Visiting teams normally travel with a law enforcement contingent from their own state, but Louisiana also provides two officers for the head coach. They are on duty and on call from meeting the coaches as they disembark their plane on a Friday afternoon until they leave town after the game. They are in the visiting locker room, at the visiting team hotel and inside the visiting team bus as it rides through raucous purple-and-gold crowds on game day. “We once had a bottle hurled so hard that it shattered a bus window,” Cain recalls. “That was against Tennessee one year.”

On this Saturday, Mississippi State’s buses arrive at Tiger Stadium to only a few distant chants of “Tiger bait!” The Bulldogs and coach Joe Moorhead filed into the stadium without incident. Walters, the 40-year-old LSU campus police major, expects a different experience in two weeks when Nick Saban and Alabama arrive here.

The Crimson Tide bring a larger entourage than any other team, with their own ambulance and Alabama police vehicles filled with law enforcement officers.

For many in Baton Rouge, Saban is public enemy No. 1, but he still has close friends here from his five seasons as LSU coach. Gautreaux penned Saban a letter urging him to remain at LSU a few days before he accepted the Dolphins job in 2004. A year into his tenure at Alabama in the spring of 2008, Saban returned to Baton Rouge for the funeral of an LSU booster, and Gautreaux drove the coach from the airport to the ceremony. “He got in the truck and I said, ‘Remember that letter I wrote you?’” Gautreaux says. “I figured he was going to tell me to kiss my ass. He said, ‘Yeah, I remember it. You know, I guess I should have listened, but I had to chase it.’”

4:10 p.m.: Victory walk

Bryan Madden stands 6'4" and weighs north of 300 pounds, a mountain of a man who is the biggest celebrity among the game-day law enforcement officers. He’s on security detail for LSU head coach Ed Orgeron. As he waits for LSU’s buses to arrive at Tiger Stadium, Madden is glad-handing and taking selfies with LSU fans who recognize him from his 11 seasons as the guard of LSU’s head football coach. “It’s amazing. On a daily basis, I get ‘I see you on TV every weekend!’” says Madden, a 49-year-old former LSU football player who works for the state police. “I don’t know how to react. I stand next to famous people.”

Two officers are assigned to LSU’s head coach, one from the state police and the other from the LSU campus police. The campus police position rotates every three to four years, giving multiple officers a shot at what Walters calls a “high-profile job.” He was on duty with Madden from 2013 to ’17 before sliding into the game day supervisor role under Thompson.

On this Saturday, atop what’s known as Victory Hill in the shadows of Tiger Stadium, Walters motions a reporter to stand back, and Madden abruptly ends an interview, darting toward LSU’s team buses. After all, he’s got a job to do. Out of the first bus comes Orgeron, and Madden hitches to his side for the team’s pregame ritual—a walk down Victory Hill, the street lined with thousands of fans.

After the Boston Marathon bombing in 2013, law enforcement made changes to the Victory Walk to better secure it. They removed newspaper stands, started running explosive-seeking dogs through the area, added plainclothes officers and placed uniformed men on high-rise locations overlooking the event. The LSU marching band follows the team down the hill, and a gaggle of law enforcement officers follow the band, some on horseback and others walking. “We want to make sure no fans get too close to the band,” says Anthony Ponton, a major in the sheriff’s office who patrols the Victory Walk.

5 p.m.: Into the stadium

The Processing Room under Tiger Stadium, which houses those who have been ejected from a game. Sheriff deputy Leticia Ware sits at a computer. Deputy Blair Nicholson is standing, and State Police Capt. Anthony Pitts is seated on the bleacher normally reserved for unruly students.

The Processing Room under Tiger Stadium, which houses those who have been ejected from a game. Sheriff deputy Leticia Ware sits at a computer. Deputy Blair Nicholson is standing, and State Police Capt. Anthony Pitts is seated on the bleacher normally reserved for unruly students.

The Processing Room is located under the LSU student section in the north end zone of Tiger Stadium. A sports car could not fit inside. It is tiny, with a door that leads to the concourse, a small air conditioning unit and a bleacher bench that’s older than most of the people who are handcuffed to it.

Law enforcement officers do not make very many arrests on game day. In fact, through the previous four games this season, four people were arrested—all of them in the home opener against Southeastern Louisiana. Ejections are much more common. The high this year (six) came against Ole Miss. The last time Alabama played in Tiger Stadium two years ago, nine people were ejected. The Processing Room is most active during games against Ole Miss and Alabama. “Alcohol is a factor involved in that,” Gautreaux says.

Special Report: Which schools had the most and fewest game-day incidents in 2017?

Sheriff deputy Leticia Ware sits behind an expandable picnic table in The Processing Room munching on candy out of a plastic bag and bracing for any ejections. A stack of handcuffs sit in front of her, but this Saturday is a quiet one, thanks to a first-half rainstorm and a dull 19–3 LSU win that dampened the party. The biggest issue on this game day: a pipe leaked on four chair-back seats in Section 404. There were other incidents, of course, all very minor. An hour before kickoff, the radio of Capt. Kenneth Huber of the sheriff’s department crackles to life. “Section 201, row 1,” a woman’s voice announces, “female threw up.” Huber grumbles. “That’s every game.”

Huber, a father to twin teenage girls and an LSU graduate, has one of the more active jobs of anyone. He stands on the field, his back to the playing surface, and watches the student section throughout the game. As a big Tigers fan, that must be tough, right? “Oh, I get a peek at the jumbotron,” he smiles.

He was on the field during LSU’s upset of Georgia two weeks ago, when the student section poured onto the playing surface after a 36–16 win. Officers cleared the field in less than 20 minutes, Thompson says, an incredible feat. Law enforcement is bracing for another potential field-storming next weekend. Sure, LSU will be a whopping underdog against the undefeated Tide, but it’s better to be prepared.

Field-storming will be far from the biggest worry on Nov. 3. Law enforcement is more concerned with those selling fraudulent tickets. More than 20 cases of ticket fraud were uncovered in the game against Georgia. Officers believe a crime ring based out of Atlanta sends workers to various top SEC football games with well-made photocopied tickets. This has been a long-standing issue. One officer recalls a case in 2010 when a man and his son purchased fraudulent tickets for $350 apiece. They had to watch that LSU-Tennessee game from a tailgate outside of the stadium. To catch these criminals, officers have a plan in place for the game against Alabama, but they asked it not be revealed publicly. “We’re gearing up for Bama,” says Morris, the game day supervisor with the sheriff’s department. “We’ll get ’em.”

5:55 p.m.: Countdown to kickoff

Three of LSU's four game day law enforcement supervisors watch as fans file into Tiger Stadium through new metal detectors. LSU Police Chief Bart Thompson, far right, stands next to East Baton Rouge Parish Maj. Todd Morris and LSU Police Maj. Marshall Walters.

Three of LSU's four game day law enforcement supervisors watch as fans file into Tiger Stadium through new metal detectors. LSU Police Chief Bart Thompson, far right, stands next to East Baton Rouge Parish Maj. Todd Morris and LSU Police Maj. Marshall Walters.

By 2020, all SEC stadium gates will use metal detectors. Tiger Stadium officials are slowly phasing them in, placing 24 devices at different gates each game this season in locations that rotate. On this Saturday, it is Gates 1–3’s turn in the rotation, and lines of fans are emptying their pockets and walking through the metal detectors as a roar thunders above them. The national anthem jet flyover signals just how close kickoff is, and that’s a good thing for Cain. “I haven’t eaten yet today,” he says, his big-billed State Police hat tugged low. While other officers grubbed at the tailgate, Cain sat in his car making phone calls. Kickoff brings a somewhat calm for the game day supervisors. Most fans are now packed in Tiger Stadium and focused on the game, leaving campus with about one-tenth the crowd as just two hours before. “It gets quiet out here once kickoff starts,” says Cain.

He and the supervisors are monitoring the Gate 1 metal detectors as kickoff happens. In a way, these devices are precautionary. Bomb-sniffing dogs sweep through Tiger Stadium each night before a game. That’s how officers knew that a bomb threat phoned into the school in 2015 was a hoax. The intensive sweeps of the stadium can produce decades-old artifacts within this concrete and steel structure. “We found an engine block once,” says Blair Nicholson, a captain at the sheriff’s office in charge of game day assignments. “Over in the northeast side of the stadium we found 30-gallon cans of water from the Cold War era.”

Like so many game day officers, Nicholson attended LSU and is a big fan of the Tigers. The school has shown its support for local law enforcement through the years, like turning Tiger Stadium’s lights blue in 2016 a day after the officer shootings in Baton Rouge. Officers don’t just bleed blue; they’re purple-and-gold too. One officer on this Saturday is asked if problems ever arise in transporting referees out of the stadium after games. No, he says: “We only have a problem with the refs on the field.” The refs are quickly whisked away in an unmarked white van.

Meanwhile, back at Gate 1, the flyover roars overhead and the group of supervisors leaves to return to the LSU campus police headquarters a block away, in the shadow of Tiger Stadium’s south end zone. The day isn’t quite over yet, of course, but with fans streaming from the exits even before halftime, it was an early night for law enforcement. Some officers are usually on duty until sunrise on Sunday, but that wasn’t the case on this game day.

In a few days, this process will repeat itself when the Tigers tangle with the No. 1 team in the country, and, no, they don’t expect it to be quiet and, no, they don’t expect to get off early. “Alabama is going to be insane,” Huber says with a smile. “It always is.”