Sunday, April 22, 2018
Public safety

Three law enforcement veterans tackle Tampa's Republican National Convention security planning

TAMPA — Assistant Police Chiefs Marc Hamlin and John Bennett led a nearly flawless Super Bowl in 2009. Sheriff's Col. Ed Duncan has three decades of tactical experience.

Together, they're leading local law enforcement plans for the Republican National Convention this August in Tampa.

The three executives from the Tampa Police Department and the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office have been meeting with state and federal officials since the summer of 2010, when Tampa won the bid. They've known each other longer.

Hamlin and Bennett are good friends and have moved up the ranks together. They go to the same Catholic church. They both coach youth sports. Even their wives are close.

Duncan is the second-longest serving employee at the Sheriff's Office. The convention, he says, is his "swan song" before he retires in September.

"So I'm going to do everything in my power to make sure it goes off without a hitch," he said.

Duncan has known Bennett since the mid '80s through SWAT events and training. Whenever Duncan needs special weapons and tactics backup, he says, a quick call to Bennett always results in action.

Hamlin, 45, grew up in Queens, N.Y. He's outgoing, personable and says he often makes decisions based on his "gut feeling." He's been the face of local RNC security efforts at community and business meetings.

"He's good at bringing together divergent groups," police Chief Jane Castor said.

He's done it with the Super Bowl in 2009. With Gasparilla in recent years. And, a decade ago, with the prostitution problem along Nebraska Avenue.

Hamlin played center on the football team at Marist College in New York, where he studied criminology. Afterward, he moved to Florida for work and to be near his retired grandparents.

He loved the Florida lifestyle — the weather, the yard.

Much of his police experience is in undercover work. At home, he likes to play the drums, do yard work and cook. He and his wife have three sons.

Co-workers call Bennett, 48, quiet and intelligent. He has a mathematical mind. In high school, he wanted to be an architect.

He's working on his master's degree in homeland security through a distance-learning program at the U.S. Naval Academy.

He shakes his head when told that people say he's brainy.

"I consider myself passionate," he said. "If you care about people, and you care about results, you'll find an answer."

Bennett moved from New Jersey to Florida with his family as a teen. He attended Pasco-Hernando Community College on a baseball scholarship and transferred to Saint Leo University, where he studied criminology.

He has years of experience in intelligence and tactical work. He goes to church three days a week and works out on other mornings.

Both men say RNC preparation has added hours of work to their schedules.

"You get in earlier, stay later," Hamlin said.

At the Sheriff's Office, Duncan considers the convention a challenging and appropriate end to his career.

He has worked the tactical side of many events in the past but considers the RNC to be the biggest since he joined the department in 1978.

Duncan, 56, grew up in Sulphur Springs and attended Hillsborough High School, bused in with other white students as part of integration efforts.

It was a time of high tensions. Outside the schools, he remembers seeing riots. Inside, he stumbled upon a criminology course that would shape his career.

He got to shadow a police officer, and he loved it.

Right out of high school, he joined Tampa police as a crime scene analyst. The grisly scenes didn't appeal to him, so when he joined the Sheriff's Office as a patrol deputy, he decided to focus on tactics.

His office is adorned with drawings of SWAT operations. It's his passion.

And so is snow skiing.

When the Florida native took his first ski trip at age 40, he fell in love with the sport. He picked it up quickly and goes on a trip every year.

"It's the place I feel most relaxed," he said.

All three men say that while planning for the RNC has been daunting, they love the challenge. And though they won't go into the details of their work for security reasons, they say they've enjoyed coming up with plans for almost every possible scenario so authorities won't be caught off guard.

Hamlin went to Honolulu in November to watch security operations at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation meeting. Bennett plans to take a trip to the NATO Summit in Chicago in May.

All three have spoken with police leaders from past conventions.

They are confident that Tampa's convention will run smoothly, even though they've seen video footage of violent anarchists at the last GOP convention in St. Paul., Minn.

"We all work so well together," Duncan said. "Honestly, it's going to be very exciting."

Times news researcher Natalie Watson contributed to this report. Jessica Vander Velde can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 226-3433.

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