TAMPA — Police donned riot gear, rolled out an armored truck and issued a booming announcement from a loudspeaker Thursday.
"This has been declared an unlawful assembly," a man's voice said. "You have 10 minutes to disperse from the area."
Faux protesters continued to pelt objects at police and ram their bodies against the officers' bicycles. Police responded in force.
Several dozen downtown business leaders watched the staged confrontation at Tampa police's training center, filming with smartphones as mock protesters threw tennis balls and officers dispersed colorful smoke into the group.
The clash could be worse in less than two weeks when the Republican National Convention convenes in Tampa. Those tennis balls could be bricks. Police could be using pepper spray and firing bean bag rounds.
"I just can't fathom this happening in Tampa," said Monica Matthews, director at a downtown day care. "It's scary."
Matthews and several others attended Tampa police's RNC Citizens Academy to gather information. They want to consider all potential problems so they can prepare. Hyde Park United Methodist minister Vicki Walker said she was reassured by the police's training and promises to respect First Amendment rights.
Police Chief Jane Castor watched the demonstration from a distance. She'd seen mock confrontations before, ones simulating even worse violence.
"There's fear in the unknown," she said. "We want to let people know as best we can what to expect."
After the 2008 RNC in St. Paul, Minn., many residents said they were surprised their city looked like a "police state."
Tampa police say they hope they won't have to use their SWAT equipment and training. They want peaceful protests. But in case the crowd control gear comes out, they want people to be familiar with it.
On Thursday, that included the public's first look at the riot gear — often called "turtle suits."
This protective gear includes padding and armor for officers' arms, legs and torsos, as well as special helmets and clear shields emblazoned with the word "police."
Tampa police said that if downtown visitors see officers in riot gear walking around, it doesn't mean police are expecting a problem.
"We just want to be prepared," said Cpl. Jared Douds.
Police have several tiers in their response plan.
First, officers in cotton khaki uniforms will monitor downtown Tampa in teams.
Their uniforms look friendly, Castor said, and she hopes downtown employees will feel comfortable approaching them.
Then, about 200 officers will patrol on bicycles. Police anticipate these officers will be able to act as city liaisons, giving directions and answering questions. They're also trained in crowd management.
On Thursday, the bicycle squad demonstrated two techniques: In one, the officers line their bikes up, front wheels overlapping with other bikes' back wheels in a makeshift fence. In another move, the officers hold bikes up on their back wheels, creating a taller, more intimidating wall.
A bomb squad will also work the RNC, using trained dogs to sniff for explosives. They've also got a robot and a special truck to deal with potential bombs.
The "grenadier and less lethal force" squad can use pepper spray and 12-gauge shotgun-like weapons to fire beanbag pellets at crowds, if necessary.
"It's a layered approach," Douds said, "if we realize some things have escalated."
SWAT teams will be ready to come in for the most dangerous conflicts.
Jessica Vander Velde can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 226-3433.