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Police and protesters will have attorneys on hand for RNC demonstrations

TAMPA — It won't just be police and protesters engaging each other outside the Republican National Convention.

Each side also will be lawyered up. The Tampa police union and National Lawyers Guild plan to bring in attorneys so that officers and protesters have counsel no more than a phone call away, if not closer.

"I want to be able to have a legal presence there for them right at the scene," said Greg Stout, president of the Tampa Police Benevolent Association, the union for nearly 1,000 Tampa officers.

During the Aug. 27-30 convention, 3,000 to 4,000 officers from around Tampa Bay and beyond are expected to be working any given day. An estimated 15,000 demonstrators could converge on Tampa.

Top police and city officials consistently say they will work to guarantee the free speech rights of demonstrators. Protesters and civil libertarians, remembering violent clashes, mass arrests and the resulting lawsuits from other cities, are skeptical.

"It would be nice to think that Tampa has learned from these prior experiences," said Anne O'Berry, southern regional vice president of the National Lawyers Guild, a nonprofit legal federation founded in 1937 to support progressive social movements. "I guess that remains to be seen."

Whatever happens, Stout expects that the Tampa PBA could have up to a half-dozen attorneys on hand between its own in-house counsel and attorneys from other PBAs in Florida.

"I would much rather have them and not use them than need them and not have them," Stout said.

Owen Kohler, a former prosecutor who is the Tampa PBA's attorney, said union attorneys will be on hand to provide advice for officers involved in critical incidents such as a vehicle crash, shooting, in-custody death, use of a Taser where there is a death, or if a protester files a complaint with internal affairs.

"I think we're just being overly cautious," Kohler said. "I'm hoping that I'm just going to be able to sit in my office."

On the other side, the guild so far has lined up 10 to 15 lawyers and is looking for more volunteers to work the convention pro bono.

It also could have up to 100 trained legal observers on the street, documenting and, if necessary, preparing to testify about clashes between protesters and police. The guild's observers will wear lime-green ball caps.

Guild attorneys will keep track of who gets arrested, who is released on bail or their own recognizance, who's in jail and who needs representation.

O'Berry said the guild also will watch for aggressive police tactics, such as "kettling," in which officers form cordons that funnel protesters into tight spaces.

"If the patterns of police overreaching occur like we've seen before, we will likely file civil litigation," she said.

In February, the city of Chicago agreed to pay $6.2 million to settle a lawsuit filed after a 2003 demonstration against the war in Iraq. About 800 people were detained and 500 were arrested. Those arrests occurred, the guild said, after police surrounded and trapped a large section of the crowd without ordering them to disperse. Last year, a federal appellate court ruled the police response was unjustified.

Given that kind of history, O'Berry said the guild is concerned about Tampa's recently passed "Event Zone" ordinance that will make it illegal to carry weapons, but also some commonplace objects such as glass bottles, in downtown Tampa and a few neighboring areas during the convention.

"There's a lot of room for people's First Amendment rights to be infringed upon with these kinds of ordinances," she said.

In response to such criticisms, Tampa police have said they will use discretion, and just because the letter of law is broken, that doesn't mean there will be an arrest. The city says it welcomes peaceful protests but will respond quickly to anyone who breaks the law.

"We're going to do it surgically," Mayor Bob Buckhorn says. "We're not going to do it by engaging a crowd. We're going to go in and extract those who are causing problems and remove them from the scene."

Information from the Chicago Tribune was used in this report.

Police and protesters will have attorneys on hand for RNC demonstrations 05/26/12 [Last modified: Monday, May 28, 2012 5:56pm]
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