TAMPA — About 30 law enforcement agencies are preparing for the largest maritime security event in Tampa's history, and they're armed with infrared technology, police divers and machine guns.
Because the Tampa Bay Times Forum, site of the Republican National Convention, backs onto water, federal and local marine units plan to saturate the waterways with boat patrols Aug. 25 - 31.
Law enforcement also will monitor the four bridges connecting Pinellas, Hillsborough and Manatee counties, paths that many delegates' buses will use daily.
Tampa police Chief Jane Castor said her agency has bridge security "covered," but she declined to share details. Law enforcement officials say they will patrol near the bridges, by water and land.
And while local officers and U.S. Secret Service agents plan to guard the Times Forum along Channelside Drive, the marine units will work around the clock to keep troublemakers from sneaking in the back via the off-limits Garrison Channel. On Tuesday, law enforcement officials displayed some of the tools they will use to patrol the waterways.
Among them is a Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office boat with infrared technology that can pick up body heat.
"We can see images of people hiding under the dock at nighttime," said Cpl. P.K. Williams, a supervisor of the Hillsborough Sheriff's Office marine unit.
U.S. Coast Guard spokeswoman Judy Silverstein said the marine units are prepared for "everything that could possibly happen," though she declined to say what that might include.
Tampa police Cpl. James Reiser said he expects law enforcement will treat any unwelcome entry into the water as a potential threat — even if it's a jokester paddling through the channel.
"If you're swimming out here, you're going to be stopped, detained and probably arrested," he said.
One of the Hillsborough Sheriff's Office boats — a new 40-foot center console vessel made by Intrepid — can travel 70 mph and has three mounted machine guns that can take out another boat's engine, Williams said.
Authorities want visitors to expect law enforcement on the water, and they want recreational boaters to know which channels will be closed.
Though Garrison Channel will close to recreational boaters during the week of the convention, Seddon Channel, which backs the Tampa Convention Center, will be closed to traffic only while the convention is in session, mainly the afternoons and nights of Aug. 27-30. Otherwise, it will be open to boat traffic.
However, boaters should expect long waits at security checkpoints, the Coast Guard said. Guns won't be allowed, and boats can't dock or anchor. The Coast Guard may even have canine units search boats, Silverstein said.
Local law enforcement agencies and the Coast Guard have lots of experience working together on Port of Tampa security. It's part of their work with the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, which was ramped up after Sept. 11, 2001.
All say the convention, however, will see a much larger boat presence than anything before, including the annual Gasparilla Parade.
Silverstein estimates about 30 agencies will join on marine patrols, and some have multiple boats. The Tampa Police Department has six.
The Coast Guard is calling up some reservists to work the convention, as well as active duty guardsmen from a tactical team based in Georgia.
And while law enforcement will be armed, trained and ready on the water, Hillsborough marine Sgt. Demetrios Antoniadis said authorities want nothing more than an uneventful week.
"We hope the worst thing we have to do is help someone who fell into the water," he said.
Jessica Vander Velde can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 226-3433.