Saturday, April 21, 2018
Public safety

Tampa police leaders draw praise for peaceful RNC week

TAMPA

As the impromptu march wound through Ybor City, Tampa police Chief Jane Castor brought up the rear in a navy Ford Expedition.

Another day of protests was proceeding peacefully, and Castor sat in the passenger seat, window down, smiling and waving at spectators on the sidewalk.

Less anarchy, more parade.

"I said I needed a box of beads," Castor later recalled. "It was actually a festive atmosphere."

Castor and a team of law enforcement from about 60 agencies across the state have received praise for their patient, measured approach during the Republican National Convention. Many glowing reviews came from protesters themselves.

"If we were in New York, there were plenty of moments we would have all been arrested," Brendon Hunt, 28, of Occupy Wall Street said Thursday. "I really like Tampa. I'd like to come back sometime."

Former Tampa Mayor Pam Iorio said she never expected anything different. It is Castor's nature to treat all people with respect, she said.

"Some chiefs in other cities have a lot more bluster to them," Iorio said. Mayor Bob Buckhorn also heaped on praise: "I think she has a presence that goes beyond just the uniform, and she's got a good heart."

But law enforcement's response was in part a luxury afforded by low protester turnout and the absence of destructive demonstrators.

The city expected up to 15,000 protesters, a number of them violent. They never materialized.

And it made law enforcement's job "much, much easier," Castor, 52, said.

For months, police gathered intelligence that told them to expect thousands of protesters, with a few instigators intent on destroying property and physically clashing with police. Their estimate was based on information about previous political events and information gathered through social media and on activist groups' websites.

Authorities believe some of the agitators were present, but they did not have a large crowd to mix in with.

"The anarchists require a crowd to work with," explained Sam Rosenfeld, a security expert with the Densus Group in Plano, Texas. "There's little they can do with the small numbers."

Castor's first hint that the masses weren't coming occurred Saturday. Police expected to see a surge of people camping near downtown. She attributed their absence to Tropical Storm Isaac, which was threatening Tampa.

On Monday, only 500 turned out for a march where 5,000 had been expected. Still, police didn't breathe a sigh of relief. Again: Isaac.

"By late Tuesday, we didn't see any more individuals coming," she said. "That's when we started to wonder if they would be."

Protests continued to be peaceful, but Castor was not going to relax. Through Wednesday, she thought people could be waiting in the wings. She did not want to be surprised.

On Thursday, though, authorities appeared much more at ease. They cracked jokes, took group pictures and passed out boxed lunches to protesters at the Romneyville encampment.

At times during the week, the chief seemed to be as focused on public relations as on police strategy.

"Can I get a picture with you?" a pink-clad woman asked the chief at Wednesday's Planned Parenthood protest.

Castor obliged with a smile. It was probably the 50th photo she had posed for this week.

"I guess they like photos with police," she offered as an explanation.

But the chief — who stands out, tall and lanky with short blond hair — was decidedly the most popular. During Monday's March on the RNC parade, several protesters excitedly whispered, "That's the police chief!" as they passed her.

"Maybe because I'm a woman," Castor guessed.

Though police were tested a few times by protesters blocking intersections, no one attempted to destroy property or hurt others — the two things Castor said authorities would not tolerate.

Violent protests tore through St. Paul, Minn., during the 2008 RNC, and the threat of that happening in Tampa was used in part to justify $50 million in federal security spending.

Several times this week, protesters criticized police for the price tag. They said they would be peaceful, so why did police buy all this gear, they asked.

Castor said she doesn't believe that police had faulty intelligence. Everything pointed to a large turnout, she said.

"I'm convinced these groups had every intention of coming here," she said Thursday. "Whether it was the weather or the lack of funding, they didn't."

Neither Castor nor Assistant Chief John Bennett — who led much of the department's RNC planning — regrets any of the spending or preparation for the convention.

"An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure," Bennett said. "Granted, $50 million is not an ounce, but when you look at the reputation of the city, what's that worth?"

Castor is quick to credit other officers for the smooth convention, including Bennett. He was the man at the center of one of the most tense moments this week.

Monday, when protesters would not leave a busy downtown intersection, Bennett, 49, scanned for their leader — someone to personally approach. The situation was escalating, as police in riot gear moved in, but Bennett wanted to get through it with no arrests.

Police have noted their patience throughout the week whenever protesters have blocked roads with unpermitted marches. But their patience would not be infinite.

Bennett's threshold for the blocking of a major intersection: the length of time it takes to clear a car crash. Forty minutes to an hour.

He talked the group into moving out of the road, and a brief deluge chased off most.

On Thursday, both Castor and Bennett said they were looking forward to time off with their children. Though they've worked long hours, Castor has smiled through most of it.

"It's been exciting," she said. "Part of it is dealing with the unknown. It's been nice to see everything fall into place."

Times staff writers Marissa Lang, Richard Danielson and Sue Carlton contributed to this report.

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