Editorial Notebook / John Hill

Peace amid the protests

Tampa police Chief Jane Castor took cover under an oak tree to dodge the rain a few steps away from a protester practicing her speech about overthrowing the system.

The biggest march on the Republican National Convention was about to leave Perry Harvey Park on Monday in downtown Tampa to parade a mile into the city center. The police were out in force. Khaki-clad bicycle troops cordoned off the route. SUVs and squad cars with lights flashing sat at the perimeter. And officers in sunglasses and walkie-talkies paced purposely in anticipation of the first protest of the week. It started and ended like they all would —- without drama to the point of boring, hot, wet, orderly, mildly colorful and remarkable for the friendliness on both sides.

At the last two Republican conventions, in St. Paul, Minn., and New York, the authorities arrested hundreds. In Tampa, the police made two convention-related arrests all week — fewer than they arrest by the first quarter at a Tampa Bay Buccaneers home game. While the nasty weather sure played a big part in keeping protesters home — busloads canceled from across Florida, Texas and New York — there were still enough demonstrators here for things to get out of hand. Several tried to provoke a confrontation at that first march Monday, but police didn't take the bait.

The training tactics for the 4,000 local and outside officers worked. The strategy was simple — exercise restraint, show overwhelming force and de-escalate any potential threat. But the methods behind that strategy evolved over the week, as police became more confident with that approach and as the protesters saw they could make their points and still stay out of jail.

Police stayed on the perimeter of the protesters' staging areas, a show of respect for their space. Cops said "ma'am" and "excuse me," posed for photos and gave demonstrators water and directions to portable toilets. The police turned a blind eye at times; on Tuesday, protesters in Ybor City climbed the statue of former Mayor Nick Nuccio and tied a bandana around his neck. The police chief showed up at every protest, and so, most times, did the sheriff. And they weren't tricked out like field marshals. In open-collared uniforms, Castor and David Gee set a disarming tone, mingling with the crowds and showing a paternal concern for everyone's safety.

These tactics were the very public face of an overwhelming security force that was waiting in the wings. Not only were they effective, but the experience will now be brought home to the 54 law enforcement agencies across the state that joined the security operation. That's an enduring legacy from this convention for the people of Florida.

John Hill is a Tampa Bay Times editorial writer.

Peace amid the protests 08/31/12 [Last modified: Friday, August 31, 2012 7:35pm]

    

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