The morning after a protest outside a Donald Trump speech turned violent, officials in Cleveland insisted that they are prepared to keep the peace during the Republican Convention in July.
“We have been here on the ground full time since last fall,” said Ron Rowe, the Secret Service official coordinating security preparations for the event.
Concerns about disturbances outside the convention are high, after protesters outside several of Trump’s speeches this year have become unruly. In Albuquerque, New Mexico, on Tuesday night, rioters threw objects and stomped on police cars.
For the Republican National Convention, which runs July 18-21, Cleveland is recruiting additional officers from other jurisdictions, hoping to triple their forces to about 4,000 to 5,000 officers. They have also ordered extra equipment, including 2,500 steel barriers, 16 police motorcycles and 2,000 sets of riot gear with body armor and batons.
But the head of Cleveland’s police union told CNN he doubts the city can reach its target of 5,000 officers, and says the extra equipment is not coming fast enough.
“We still don’t have the personal safety gear that we need – elbow pads, knee pads, chest protectors, we don’t have helmets, we don’t have gas masks, for the rank and file folks that are going to down there,” said Stephen Loomis, president of the Cleveland Police Patrolmen’s Association. “And when we do get it – we’re 50 days out – I’m concerned that we’re not going to have enough time to adequately train with the equipment, if it does get here in time.”
City leaders pushed back on Wednesday, saying that the police force will be ready.
“I can’t stress enough, that we are prepared for this,” said Cleveland Police Chief Calvin Williams.
City officials also issued long-awaited security rules for protesters on Wednesday, delineating what part of downtown Cleveland will be under security lockdown (stretching from the arena to the airport), and what items are forbidden in that zone (including ladders, gas masks, drones and lasers.) A designated route for protest marches was also announced, which will keep organizations who get permits at least 1,000 feet away from the Quicken Loans Arena at their closest point.
The Democratic and Republican Party conventions are designated “National Special Security Events,” meaning that Cleveland and Philadelphia are both receiving $50 million in federal money help cover security costs.
Philadelphia will host the Democratic convention a week after the Republicans in Cleveland, but Philadelphia officials declined to provide specifics on their security preparations.
A Secret Service official says for each venue, the agency is planning to set up concentric circles of protection.
“The Secret Service does rings of security,” said former special agent-in-charge Larry Johnson. “The inner perimeter is very well-secured; the middle perimeter is where you have magnetometers, X-ray machines; the outer perimeter is counter-surveillance and vehicle checkpoints. So you’re going to see protesters be able to protest somewhere outside of that outer perimeter.”
He said agents will also monitor public social media, for signs of protesters who could pose a security threat.
Cleveland Mayor Frank Jackson vowed that the city would balance security precautions with the rights of protesters to exercise free speech.
But the challenge for law enforcement will be to draw the line, according to Jim Bueermann, head of the Police Foundation.
One of the things he said officers will need to look for: “Are there anarchists in the group, that may attempt to either agitate the participants who are there simply to exercise their First Amendment rights, or assault the police?”
Cleveland would be wise to prepare its officers for the worst, Bueermann said, for example by using role-playing scenarios where a protest turns violent.
“When officers are at the front line, there are people standing literally right in front of them, swearing at them, calling them every name you can think of, they’re spitting on them sometimes, trying to get the officers to react,” he said. “It is a constant battle to keep your eyes on everybody’s hands, to make sure that if they’re going to assault you, that you can protect yourself with a shield.”