TAMPA — After months of behind-the-scenes planning but little in-front-of-the-microphones discussion, Tampa officials Thursday provided a better glimpse of security plans for the Republican National Convention.
No word yet on where the secure perimeter around the convention will go, but officials plan to have 3,000 to 4,000 police officers on duty each day of the event, scheduled for Aug. 27-30.
Between them, Tampa and the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office have about 2,100 sworn law enforcement officers, but they still have to police their communities.
That means hiring a lot of out-of-town muscle. Up to two-thirds of the $50 million that Congress has appropriated for the convention is expected to go toward paying, housing and feeding officers brought in from other jurisdictions.
"We're not going to buy a lot of equipment with this money," Tampa Assistant Police Chief Marc Hamlin told the City Council.
Still, police do need some upgrades, and those purchases started Thursday.
There was $1.18 million for a better video link between police helicopters and ground commanders. Also nearly $273,000 for an armored SWAT vehicle.
Really, asked City Council Vice Chairwoman Mary Mulhern.
"Kind of troubling," she said. "I personally don't feel like this is a necessity, and I just don't like the idea of our city becoming militarized (in its) police force."
In addition to the SWAT vehicle they're buying, police plan to borrow a dozen or more like it from Pinellas, Hillsborough and federal agencies for the convention. Also, up to $2 million will buy about 60 downtown surveillance cameras.
And police have offered advice to managers of downtown office buildings: Think about having some employees work from home that week. Assess your buildings' vulnerable spots, like big plate-glass windows.
Going in a different direction, Mulhern asked whether the city could spend some of the federal grant on services or a shelter for the homeless. After all, she said, they are affected by the panhandling ban that Tampa passed in the runup to the convention.
Not likely, officials said, though Hamlin said he would ask the U.S. Justice Department, which must approve every expenditure of the grant money.
"It's not going to happen," Mayor Bob Buckhorn said later, adding he can't imagine the feds saying yes. "We can't be diverted from what the appropriate use of that money is, and that is to provide a safe environment for the convention. It's not to be used for pet projects or things totally unrelated to security.
"I'm not putting my reputation or the city's reputation on the line to do anything other than what we're supposed to do," Buckhorn said.
Tampa police expect up to 15,000 protesters for the convention and are working with the Secret Service and many neighboring agencies on contingency plans for nearly every possible scenario.
That's not unusual. The U.S. Department of Homeland Security classifies national political conventions as "national special security events" — something on par with a meeting of the World Bank or a summit of the G-8, a group of leading industrial nations.
With Thursday's unanimous City Council vote, Tampa will pay $272,904 for a Lenco BearCat armored SWAT truck, more lightweight than other armored vehicles, but it still can repel gunfire.
The city already has two armored vehicles, both military surplus, both 20 to 30 years old and both often needing hard-to-find spare parts.
"Thank God we have two, because one seems to break down every week," Hamlin said.
The current vehicles are used dozens of times a year, either when the SWAT team is called out or when police serve high-risk search warrants. They have taken gunfire and protect officers going into dangerous situations, he said. They're not used for patrol or for crowd control, Hamlin said.
The new digital video downlink will replace analog technology that the Police Department has used since 1999. Agencies in Pinellas and Hillsborough have gone digital, and officials say Tampa needs to convert to be able to coordinate its operations and share information.
"Analog technology is almost Stone Age," council member Lisa Montelione said. "I think it's long overdue."
The new system is designed to stream encrypted, high-definition video to handheld receivers or monitors on the ground. The vendor, Broadcast Microwave Services of Poway, Calif., will provide onsite technical support during the convention.
With so much money going to security, Mulhern asked, "is there a budget that we can see so that we know … what is going to be spent?"
But for now some details will stay behind the scenes.
"It's not for public consumption," Hamlin said, "because there's a lot of security details in the budget that could impact our security plans."
Richard Danielson can be reached at [email protected], (813) 226-3403 or @Danielson_Times on Twitter.