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National Politics

Police to use patience first with RNC protesters

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Published:   |   Updated: March 18, 2013 at 11:53 PM
TAMPA -

If police engage protesters at the Republican National Convention, they say they will follow a set of rules that emphasizes patience over confrontation.

The 5,500 officers patrolling the convention will follow a set of written rules that calls first for conversation with protesters, said Tampa Assistant Police Chief John Bennett.

Next comes a warning.

And only after that, Bennett says, if they don't get a response or they see a law about to be broken, will police make an arrest.

"We're going to start by doing a lot of conversations, a lot of warnings," said Bennett, the head of his agency's security planning for the Aug. 27-30 convention.

"We're collaborating with demonstrators. Our doors are open to talk about any concerns. We're educating the community through town hall meetings."

Still, one law enforcement expert says that try as they might, it's hard for police to avoid criticism during large-scale events such as a political convention.

"These things have been a lose-lose situation for cops," said Eugene O'Donnell, a police science professor at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York. "If you under-react to an incident, you get criticized. If you overreact, you get criticized. It's very hard to get the mix right."

Bennett said he thinks his agency's rules of engagement will help Tampa avoid the violent confrontations of past conventions.

All officers have been told that one of their main tasks is to protect the First Amendment right to freedom of speech and expression and that protesters should be given a wide berth to express viewpoints, Bennett said.

"Really, the line for us is criminal activity," he said. "We're not going to tolerate property destruction and violent behavior."

O'Donnell, a retired New York City police officer, said one tactic to avoid riots at a convention is for police to "arrest early and often."

"Make arrests early to nip things in the bud," O'Donnell said. "Use force to make lawful arrests or stop people from breaking the law. There's a heightened sense of security, a heightened sense of everything, post-9/11. In New York City, they arrest first and figure it out later."

That's not the approach Tampa is going to take, Bennett said.

"If there's somebody trying to incite the crowd, it depends what they're trying to incite them to do," he said. "If it's chanting, that's OK. If it's dancing, that's OK. If it's rallying the crowd to take up arms and confront police, that's when it crosses a criminal line."

A video featuring Police Chief Jane Castor and Hillsborough Sheriff David Gee will be shown to the thousands of officers coming to Tampa to help with security during the convention. They both remind visiting officers that patience is key.

"Mixed in with the thousands of peaceful demonstrators will be those individuals bent on destruction," Gee says in the video. "We will use discretion on when and how to act to avoid a tipping point. We will target these troublemakers and remove them from the area."

Castor added, "We are smarter, highly trained and better equipped" than anarchists. "Most importantly, we are more patient. It is their intent to bait us to use force against them, capture it on videotape and show it to the world as excessive force. But we will be very calculated to ensure it's strategic and controlled."

That's a risk all officers face, O'Donnell said, because of the ubiquity of cellular phones and the popularity of social media sites such as Facebook, Twitter and YouTube.

"With the blogosphere, there's a whole cadre of people ready to blemish the police, accuse them of excessive force or throw out allegations of a police state," O'Donnell said.

Sheriff's spokesman Larry McKinnon said protesters aren't the only ones who are savvy with social media.

"We will remain very transparent to the public via the media and social media to balance any one-sided attempt to create a negative image on law enforcement," McKinnon said.

Bennett said officers have been taking "scenario-based training" to prepare them for hecklers.

"We tell our officers, 'You just can't be offended by verbal attacks. Now, if a person is showing mannerisms that could lead to an assault, then act,'" Bennett said.

With so many officers coming in from different agencies, Bennett said, Tampa police and the sheriff's office have come up with a special operational plan for law enforcement during the convention.

Although authorities aren't divulging full details because of security concerns, warning, talking to and being patient with protesters are some of the main tenets of the operational plan's rules of engagement, Bennett said.

He expects officers to use their best judgment on a case-by-case basis and that the approach of collaboration and understanding can help Tampa avoid riots and violent crowds.

Still, police are preparing for the worst. City officials have spent about $46 million so far on security equipment. The money comes from a $50 million federal fund Congress created to reimburse Tampa for security-related expenses for the convention.

Already approved are an armored truck, four-wheeled all-terrain vehicles, a fleet of bicycles, riot gear, radios and surveillance cameras.

"Unfortunately, because of violent demonstrations in the past, we have to take precautions," Bennett said. "Truthfully, we don't know what to expect."

O'Donnell said police have a difficult task ahead of them.

"There's very, very many moving parts," O'Donnell said. "For handling protesters, I'm not sure anyone has the magic ingredient. It's very hard for police to get it right. The Tampa Police Department may get a black eye after this."


rreyes@tampatrib.com (813) 259-7920

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