Thursday, February 22, 2018
Public safety

Law enforcement trains to stay calm during RNC

TAMPA — Law enforcement won't allow violent assaults at the Republican National Convention. They won't stand for property damage, either.

But up to that point, they plan to let a lot slide.

Baiting has long been a way to get police to react. Protesters yelled "Pigs!" and "I smell bacon!" at the 2008 RNC in St. Paul, Minn. Some lunged threateningly at officers. Others dangled doughnuts. Cameras recorded the officers' reactions.

Tampa expects its officers to be even-tempered. Actions that appear to be assaults could be traps.

"We don't expect any officer to be a victim of an offense, to be assaulted or battered," said Tampa police Assistant Chief John Bennett. "But at the same time, people are going to try to goad (police) into overresponding."

To ensure the approximately 3,000 officers from across the state expected at Tampa's convention share the same philosophy, Tampa police and the Hillsborough Sheriff's Office have been hosting a series of two-day leadership training sessions.

Law enforcement supervisors and commanders are learning how to respond to baiting, and brushing up on First Amendment issues. They're mastering radio and report-writing procedures — and the geography of Tampa.

"We've got a lot of officers coming here who have never been to Tampa," said Hillsborough sheriff's Col. Ed Duncan.

They're also getting a rundown of heat-related issues because it will be the supervisors' responsibility to send exhausted officers to safety, Duncan said.

About 250 supervisors are going through the training. Most are from the Tampa Police Department and Hillsborough Sheriff's Office, though about 60 agencies from across Florida will join.

This extra training is essential, Bennett said, because even though every officer has gone through police and sheriff's academies, people vary in experience, agencies have different policies and many officers haven't faced baiting.

Bennett saw this tactic firsthand at the NATO summit in Chicago in May. He believes some protesters were aiming for lawsuits.

So during training last week, Hillsborough authorities shared photos and videos of protesters taunting police, with signs, words and gestures. The goal is to desensitize the officers so they won't be shocked.

"Everyone has a First Amendment right," Duncan said, and that includes offensive language, he said.

In Tampa, law enforcement is aiming for a middle-ground between tough and tolerant. That's where the team concept comes into play.

Though officers may have to make split-second decisions if protesters personally threaten them, many major decisions will come from the supervisor level, Bennett said.

Teams will stick together, so if one feels threatened, that officer is supposed to assess the danger from the perspective of the group. The threat level is different if an officer is alone on patrol, he said.

"You're deployed as a team, so you work as a team," Bennett said.

At the training, supervisors are also being told to expect protesters to record and photograph their actions — and law enforcement shouldn't object unless the protester is physically interfering with official police duties, Bennett said. It's part of being a public servant and working in a public space, he said.

"They can't take offense to someone taking a picture or videotaping," he said.

These supervisors will each lead a group of officers, most divided up by zones, as Tampa police do daily.

Business owners should know who is in charge of their block, and this "community-oriented policing" approach gives law enforcement ownership and accountability, Bennett said.

"You get to know your block and build relationships," he said.

Jessica Vander Velde can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 226-3433.

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