TAMPA — There are 402 days until next year's Republican National Convention in Tampa, but the Department of Homeland Security is already training police on crowd control.
Officers and deputies from Tampa, the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office and Lakeland so far have gone through the three-day course, which began in June. Others from around Tampa Bay have been invited.
The Department of Homeland Security's Center for Domestic Preparedness is conducting the training at no cost to the city at the Tampa police academy.
"They bring the instructors in from all over the nation," said Tampa police Capt. Brian Dugan, who is leading local crowd-management planning for the convention.
Organizers expect 50,000 visitors, including up to 10,000 protesters, when the convention comes to Tampa the week of Aug. 27, 2012.
And if the 2008 GOP convention in St. Paul, Minn., is any guide, the crowd training could come in handy.
St. Paul officials estimated that about 500 of the 10,000 protesters there were anarchists who came to town to try to shut down the convention.
The most violent rammed a police car with a flaming garbage bin, smashed windshields on police cruisers and shattered 15 plate-glass windows. Several, dressed all in black, carried backpacks with weapons, including nails, clubs and a bag of feces.
Local authorities, bolstered by 150 Minnesota National Guard troops, responded with tear gas and pepper spray and arrested more than 250 people. At one point, demonstrators trying to cross two bridges were blocked by snowplows, gravel trucks and hundreds of officers in riot gear.
At the Tampa Police Department, every officer from the rank of lieutenant down — 955 of the agency's 975 sworn officers — will go through the crowd-control course.
The training, involving groups of 30 to 70 officers, will continue through July and resume in November and December. Officials are not discussing its content other than to say that it's split between classroom work and hands-on instruction.
Dugan said Tampa has learned at least two things from other cities that have hosted convention-scale events.
First, it's never too soon to prepare.
"We are starting our planning and training very early" to balance the duty of policing the city with task of preparing for the convention, he said. "That's one of the lessons learned, that the earlier you start the better."
Also, good communication is essential.
"That's the one thing that everybody says, but that's always the biggest thing," Dugan said.
With their work at the Super Bowl, Stanley Cup playoffs and Gasparilla pirate invasion, Tampa police have plenty of crowd-control experience, Dugan said.
"That's what cops do every single day, whether you're at a domestic dispute and you're managing three people in a house or you're at a football game trying to manage 30,000," he said.
Still, a lot of other work remains to be done to get ready for the protesters.
So far, officials have not decided whether to put a special permit process in place for groups that want to demonstrate, City Attorney Jim Shimberg Jr. said. Currently, the only time a group needs a permit to march is if it wants to close a city street.
"We have to be careful with any permitting process because we want to make sure that groups are able to exercise their First Amendment rights," Shimberg said. For example, if the permit process required groups to put up a bond, that could work against those without the money to do so.
Likewise, the locations of free-speech or protest zones will be driven by where the Secret Service sets the security perimeter for the convention. But that hasn't happened.
The American Civil Liberties Union of Florida, which met with police and city officials in April, plans to offer training suggestions to police on responding appropriately to peaceful protesters or demonstrators involved in nonviolent civil disobedience.
The police may have to arrest nonviolent resisters breaking the law, but should do so in as nonphysical a way as possible so no one gets hurt, said John Dingfelder, a former Tampa City Council member who is the ACLU's senior staff attorney for mid Florida.
"We definitely look forward to working closely with the city and other officials, including federal officials," he said, "so that we can have the best possible convention, ensuring that free speech is respected while still putting Tampa in the best possible light."
Information from the Minneapolis Star Tribune, Minnesota Public Radio and Los Angeles Times was used in this report. Richard Danielson can be reached at Danielson@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3403.