In late June and early July, thousands of police officers and fire service workers from around the world will converge on Fairfax County, Va., a suburb of Washington, D.C., to participate in an Olympic-style competition known as the World Police & Fire Games.
The 10-day-long games will feature traditional athletic events such as track and field and boxing. Police officers also will be eligible to compete in police pistol combat events and service dog competitions that include narcotics detection and subduing suspects.
The games’ organizers, the California Police Athletic Federation, tout the biennial event as one of the world’s largest multi-sport events, second only to the Olympics in terms of the number of participants. First held in 1985 in San Jose, Calif., the games are open to active and retired law enforcement officers and fire service personnel. About 12,000 athletes from more than 70 countries are expected to compete in 61 events in 53 different venues in Fairfax County and other parts of the D.C. metropolitan area from June 26 to July 5.
The previous World Police & Fire Games, held in Belfast, Northern Ireland, were deemed “the best and friendliest ever” games by its organizers. The organizers estimated the cost of the event at about 13 million pounds, or $18 million. The Fairfax County games are expected to cost about $20 million.
After hosting the event in 2013, organizers of the Belfast games expressed disappointment with the number of participants from outside Northern Ireland. “The consequence of lower out of state numbers has a knock-on impact on subsequent monetary targets: commercial bed nights; registration and event entry fees; and economic benefit,” the organizers of the Belfast games said in an event post-mortem released in February 2014.
Following the lead of previous host cities, the Fairfax County government will be lavishing the private event with at least $3 million of taxpayer money. Public funds will be going to the games as the county’s public schools are facing a financial crisis and as the county’s library system is dealing with budget cuts of almost 30% over the past 10 years on a real spending basis.
Despite budget problems with the county’s core services, government officials are excited about the millions they agreed to spend on the games. “Fairfax County has pledged $3 million to host and sponsor the games. With several more million in staffing and public safety to come,” Fairfax County Chairwoman Sharon Bulova, the county’s top elected official, boasted at a 2014 event to promote the games. Bulova declined a request to comment on the World Police & Fire Games for this article.
In 2009, Fairfax County officials highlighted the economic benefit of hosting the World Police & Fire Games when they were competing with their counterparts in Toronto and Winnipeg, Canada, to win the games for 2015. Organizers estimated a regional economic impact of $60 million to $80 million in revenue from the event. Drawing on the Olympics parallel, the Fairfax County games organizers also hired a former Olympic organizer, Bill Knight, to serve as chief executive of its effort.
Some experts aren’t convinced these types of sporting events are big revenue-producers. When it comes to the Olympics, for example, Philip Porter, an economist at the University of South Florida who has studied the impact of sporting events, told The New York Times that the evidence is unequivocal on cities that host the Olympics. “The bottom line is, every time we’ve looked — dozens of scholars, dozens of times — we find no real change in economic activity,” he said.
Whether the World Police & Fire Games gives Fairfax County a big financial boost remains to be seen. What is certain is the event’s athletic competitions will give police officers and fire service personnel an opportunity to show off their athletic prowess.
A contingent from the Baltimore Police Department is likely to make the 40-mile trek south to participate in the games. The World Police & Fire Games will provide an intriguing juxtaposition for the city’s police department: Baltimore’s finest will be hailed as heroes in Fairfax County at the same time that six of their colleagues face criminal charges in the death of city resident Freddie Gray.
Fairfax County itself is under scrutiny for extreme police violence. Earlier this year, the Fairfax County government paid almost $3 million to settle a wrongful death lawsuit brought by the family of a man, John Geer, who was killed by a county police officer while standing in the doorway of his home. On top of the Geer settlement, the county could face another multi-million-dollar lawsuit after members of the Fairfax County Sheriff’s Office recently used a Taser against a woman who was fully restrained in the county jail. The woman died from the delivery of four 50,000 volt shocks from the Taser.
The organizers of the World Police & Fire Games likely are hoping the ongoing focus on police violence in Ferguson, Mo., New York City, North Charleston, S.C., Baltimore and many other cities does not overshadow the games. And Fairfax County residents should not be surprised if the county agrees to spend additional public funds on security due to concerns about protesters showing up at the various events.
Mark Hand covers political action. You can reach him at email@example.com