Thousands of voters, party faithful, protesters and press will descend on Tampa in late summer for the Republican National Convention. But long after the delegates pack up shop and the nominee heads into the home stretch of campaigning, the security apparatus put in place for the event will be felt by locals and local law enforcement alike.
With the help of $50 million in grant money from the federal government, Tampa, Florida is considering ways to beef up its law enforcement capabilities for the convention, which will be held August 27-30.
Assistant Police Chief Marc Hamlin told TPM that Tampa has been making preparations since May 2010 for the event, designated as a “national special security event,” in conjunction with the Secret Service, FBI and other local agencies. The plan, he said, is “tremendous,” and among other things, involves maritime security (because the city is surrounded by water on three sides), and possible fences erected around the city’s court house.
Two-thirds of the federal grant money, Hamlin said, will go toward paying personnel brought in from other nearby police jurisdictions. Tampa currently has around 1,100 officers, but is shooting for 4,000 for the convention.
After that there will be “very little money left for equipment,” Hamlin said, but that will go to purchasing a $273,000 armored BearCat SWAT truck, which would be “used to rescue people in volatile situations.” Hamlin added that it “won’t be used for patrol or any kind of crowd control.” The police also are trying to borrow around twelve others from nearby police departments and federal agencies for the duration of the convention.
There is also a plan to use $1.18 million to upgrade the electronic surveillance equipment in the city’s helicopters. The choppers already have cameras, Hamlin said, but they are outdated. The new digital cameras will be used to monitor “road closures due to security, and monitoring the crowds” during the convention, he said.
But Tampa is likely to add eyes to places other than its helicopters. Last Wednesday, six companies submitted proposals to the city for a contract that could be worth up to $2 million to install surveillance cameras in the downtown area, where the conference will be held. According to the Tampa Bay Times, the city received proposals from IBM, Aware Digital, ADT Security Services, Total Recall Corp., CelPlan Technologies and Avrio RMS Group (which supplied cameras for both conventions in 2008).
The Times reports that Tampa initially planned to purchase 238 cameras including high-tech gadgetry like helmet cameras, and two unmanned drones. But with a potential price tag of $5 million, the city decided to scrap its plan for the fancy stuff and just put in an order for 60 cameras.
A spokesman for the Tampa PD said that the city has “not determined yet” whether the cameras will stay up after the convention, but depending on how much it will cost to maintain them, the city will determine whether to rent or buy.
But one City Council member, Mary Mulhern, pointed out that the city is only putting out feelers for proposals in which they buy the cameras. Mulhern told TPM that last fall, Tampa had initially asked for proposals for buying or leasing the cameras, but didn’t get enough bids from security companies.
Mulhern said she found it “worrisome” that the city is looking to buy the cameras. “What that says to me is that they will install these for the convention and they will be permanent, which I am opposed to and I will not support.”
“I will need to see some evidence that this is even useful,” she said. Mulhern added that it is possible that installing cameras could help a protester who claims mistreatment by the police, if he or she is able to review the video footage. “But will the public have access to that? There’s a lot of questions,” she said.
In November, 2011, Congress passed an appropriations bill for Agriculture, Rural Development, Food and Drug Administration, and Related Agencies, signed by President Obama, that set aside $100 million for convention security.
The Ag appropriations bill carved out $50 million for Tampa and Charlotte, North Carolina, host of the Democratic National Convention, as part of the Edward Byrne Memorial Justice Assistance Grant program “for law enforcement and related security costs, including overtime, associated with the two principal 2012 Presidential Candidate Nominating Conventions.” The Edward Byrne grant is doled out by the Bureau of Justice Assistance in the Department of Justice.
At this point, Charlotte has been much less forthcoming about its security plans for the convention, set to kick off on September 3. Robert Tufano from the Police Chief’s office at the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department told TPM that so far the city has spent $1.9 million of the federal grant money. This includes $965,000 for technology, $765,000 for equipment, $131,000 for facilities and $10,000 for travel. Tufano said he could not elaborate further for security reasons, and that further information won’t be released until the week after the convention.
What is known is that the city will be adding to its number of police officers, and that it will be taking one particular step that echoes controversial measures host cities have taken in the past: the set up of what have been derisively referred to as “free speech zones” for protesters.
The Charlotte City Council on Monday approved a set of ordinances that would tighten restrictions on protesters for any “extraordinary event” — not just the convention. An “extraordinary event” is defined as “a large-scale special event of national or international significance and/or an event expected to attract a significant number of people to a certain portion of the City.” These events would be designated by the city manager.
The new ordinances would ban camping on city property, set up specific “protest routes” for groups to march, designate “protest zones” near the convention center, and heavily restrict use of items like cables, wire, chains, large backpacks, duffel bags or coolers, as well as masks, scarves, body armor shields and helmets “worn with the intent to hide one’s identity while committing a crime.”
Ben Carroll of the Coalition to Protest at the DNC, an organization that is coordinating demonstrations for the convention, says the ordinances are modeled after those put in place for the Democratic National Convention in Denver in 2008 that make it “more difficult for people to express their free speech” and “more difficult for people to express dissent.”
He said the prospective new ordinances would put in place measures that “make huge laundry lists that ban a number of items and actions when the Charlotte City Manager deems that there’s an ‘extraordinary event’” taking place in the city. “It allows police to pick and choose who they can enforce these ordinances against,” Carroll said.