TAMPA — Police plan to spend $6 million on portable radios for the Republican National Convention to try to prevent the kind of chaos that marred the start of the 2008 GOP convention in St. Paul, Minn.
The goal is to put every officer on the same radio system, no matter where the officer is from or the assignment.
"We've got to have everybody, literally, on the same page and the same channel," Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn said Monday. "In St. Paul, you had breaks in communication. You weren't able to monitor where the disturbances were popping up."
Money for the radios would come from a $50 million federal grant for convention security.
If the City Council approves the plan Thursday, police will buy 1,765 handheld radios, 163 vehicle-mounted radios, plus equipment to accommodate more dispatchers, from Communications International of Vero Beach.
That would be Tampa's largest RNC acquisition yet — more than the combined cost of surveillance cameras, an armored SWAT truck and body armor for officers. It also would bring the running total for city spending on convention-related technology and equipment to nearly $12 million.
Authorities say they need the radios to communicate with about 3,000 officers who will come to the city for temporary convention duty from agencies outside the Tampa Bay area.
Four years ago, St. Paul police likewise brought in out-of-town officers and assigned them to posts throughout downtown.
But the visiting officers did not get radios that allowed them to monitor what was happening. In one case, a small group of officers from Cedar Rapids, Iowa, didn't know a crowd of anarchists was smashing store windows and marching toward them until a St. Paul patrol officer warned them.
That, however, was just one of the problems on the first day of that convention, according to a commission appointed by the city of St. Paul to examine police decisions during the convention. The commission found that St. Paul police expected anarchists to blend in with a march of antiwar protesters on the first day, so they deployed armored riot police in several "mobile field forces" near the parade route.
Regular St. Paul patrol officers were not part of the convention deployment, but were told to expect "business as usual," according to the commission's 82-page report. They received no equipment and little training, especially for crowd control.
Police also established two different radio dispatch channels — one for convention-related communications, and a second for normal day-to-day operations. Officers were told to stay on their assigned channel unless directed otherwise.
The trouble started around noon on the convention's first day, when the anarchists didn't join the parade as expected. Instead, an estimated 500 to 1,000 fanned out into downtown St. Paul, smashing windows and windshields, slashing tires and turning benches, signs, trash cans and newspaper boxes into weapons or barricades. Some took positions on bridges and rained debris onto traffic, including a bus loaded with delegates.
While officers repeatedly called for riot police on the patrol channel, commanders working the convention were listening to the RNC channel..
Even when the mobile field forces were redeployed, they ran into unexpected delays. "We always arrived late," one officer told the commission.
As a result, anarchists moved freely through downtown St. Paul for more than two hours. By the end of the day, police used pepper spray, smoke grenades and tear gas to quell the crowds and made 284 arrests.
Tampa hopes to prevent that, and not just by giving everyone the same radio for the Aug. 27-30 convention.
Unlike in St. Paul, nearly every officer in Tampa — plus Hillsborough County sheriff's deputies and officers from neighboring agencies — is going through crowd-control training given by the federal Department of Homeland Security.
The radios are being bought through an existing contract negotiated by the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office.
After the RNC, the radios and some new dispatch equipment will become property of the Sheriff's Office, but will be used to support a 6-year-old project to create seamless communications between law enforcement agencies on both sides of Tampa Bay.
"It will be used for daily operation immediately after the convention," said Pinellas County radio and data systems manager Pam Montanari, who chairs a regional committee working on developing communications that operate across Tampa Bay. "Those are 2,000 radios that won't have to be purchased at a later date."
Already, she said, the improved communications helped during multiagency hunts for Dontae Morris and Nicholas Lindsey, accused of killing police officers.
Along with St. Paul, which saw 800 arrests by the end of its convention, Tampa officials have studied the security plans of other host cities.
That includes Boston, where tight security closed a neighboring interstate for five hours a day but ended the 2004 Democratic National Convention with just seven arrests.
"We are learning from everyone," Buckhorn said.