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Hernando County deputies ready to protect, serve during RNC

A selected group of Hernando County sheriff’s deputies that volunteered to work during the Republican National Convention in Tampa will wear protective gear provided by a federal grant.

OCTAVIO JONES | Times

A selected group of Hernando County sheriff’s deputies that volunteered to work during the Republican National Convention in Tampa will wear protective gear provided by a federal grant.

BROOKSVILLE — Video of the chaos that has erupted at past political conventions is a mouse click away, and Hernando sheriff's Deputy Chris Vascellaro's wife has done some clicking since she heard about her husband's latest assignment.

"She's nervous," Vascellaro said. "Anyone can pull up YouTube videos and see the things that have happened."

But the 31-year-old deputy is excited, too. He and 30 of his co-workers are among the roughly 4,000 law enforcement officers who will provide security during the Republican National Convention, which starts Monday in downtown Tampa.

The Hernando team left early Thursday for an eight-day deployment. The effort is fueled in large part by the spirit of mutual aid, said Sheriff Al Nienhuis.

"It's very important not just to the promoters of the event, but to the sheriff's offices, as well, to have this go off without a hitch," Nienhuis said. "It's going to be huge for the Tampa Bay economy."

But the Hernando Sheriff's Office will benefit, too. A federal grant will cover the team's payroll and insurance costs for the week, and the Sheriff's Office will get to keep body armor and bicycles the unit has been issued for the event.

The deployment also gives team members the chance to get a type of real-world experience that doesn't come along very often.

"It's unknown territory," said Deputy Chris Croft, 37.

In addition to delegates and journalists, thousands of protestors are expected to descend on the city for the four-day convention. Late last year, the Tampa Police Department put out a call to police departments and sheriff's offices throughout the state, asking what kind of resources they could spare for a week.

The department is using a $50 million federal grant to outfit officers from more than 60 agencies with new gear.

Of the Hernando officers heading south, 21 are members of the agency's mobile field force, an all-volunteer standing unit trained in crowd control techniques, said Hernando sheriff's Lt. Matt Lillibridge. Lillibridge is overseeing the deployment and acting as the liaison with the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office, the other lead agency overseeing security.

Three more Hernando team members are grenadiers trained to use less-lethal weapons like tear gas and rubber bullets. Five others will patrol the city on mountain bikes, and one is a marine officer.

Team members received new helmets and Kevlar body armor.

"If protestors are hurling bricks at them, hurling bottles at them, this is the stuff that's going to protect them," Lillibridge said.

The patrol officers will ride all-terrain bicycles manufactured by Kona and customized for police use. They feature LED flashers, sirens, built-in racks and disc brakes.

The grant dollars also paid for hours of additional crowd-control training, provided specifically for the event.

Community policing Deputy Scott Reak, 36, rides an agency-issue Giant mountain bike several times during the year in Hernando's shopping centers and high-crime areas. If crowds get out of hand in Tampa, Reak will line up with other bicycle officers and use their Konas as a makeshift wall.

The deputies all are ready for long days in steamy heat — or rain and wind from what on Thursday was still Tropical Storm Isaac. As of this week, the Hernando unit was assigned to 12-hour day shifts, though they will be on call day and night. Some last-minute, on-site training was set for the next few days, prior to the official start of the convention.

"It's going to be a new experience we've never had before and probably never will," Reak said. "It's good to be part of something like that."

The Brooksville Police Department offered a squad of 10 for the event, but didn't hear back from Tampa, Chief George Turner said. That is probably for the best, Turner said, because his small agency will want all hands available if Isaac arrives as a powerful storm.

The Sheriff's Office will be able to handle a storm without the team headed for the convention, Lillibridge said. Employees were directed to avoid vacation requests for the week. Training deputies and members of the street crimes unit will help fill patrol spots. The federal grant will cover any necessary overtime.

There aren't many occasions that require crowd control in Hernando, so the chance to train for a specific mission has created a bond among the mobile field force members, said Deputy Anthony Rebello, 39.

"We mesh perfectly," he said.

Tony Marrero can be reached at tmarrero@tampabay.com or (352) 848-1431.

Hernando County deputies ready to protect, serve during RNC 08/23/12 [Last modified: Thursday, August 23, 2012 8:03pm]
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