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‘Back the Blue’ rally for law enforcement set for Tampa on Saturday

"‘These guys just need to hear that America still supports them,’ " said organizer Kristen Krutz.

TAMPA — After peaceful protests and violent unrest started dominating headlines and social media a couple of weeks ago, Kristen Krutz started thinking about a way to show support for police.

The Trinity real estate agent considered mailing blue roses to local law enforcement agencies or dropping off coffee at police stations. She asked some of the law enforcement officers she knows in other states how she could help.

"I was told the same thing by multiple people, and I keep hearing this one sergeant’s words in my head,” said Krutz, 36. "‘These guys just need to hear that America still supports them.’ "

So Krutz came up with the idea for this Saturday’s “Back the Blue” rally in Tampa. The event is scheduled to begin at 11 a.m. at the Tampa Police Department’s District 1 headquarters, 3818 W Tampa Bay Blvd.

The plan is to gather at the district office with signs of support, then do a short out-and-back march along Tampa Bay Boulevard.

“We have 1 agenda," the Facebook event page says. "That our men and women in Blue, and their families, hear and see that they ARE appreciated, and we stand united with the millions of LEOs who love and serve so well.”

The goal is to boost morale among law enforcement officers who might feel dispirited by violence sparked by the death of George Floyd, a Minneapolis man who died in police custody last month, Krutz said.

“There are peaceful marches that have been about George Floyd and race, but the riots are criminal tragedies," she said. "They’re attacking men who had nothing to do with his death or police brutality. We’re trying to keep the rally about what has been done to innocent police officers who have served and loved their community well.”

By Thursday morning, the Facebook event page showed 30 users said they were attending and 250 had clicked “interested.”

“We are encouraging people to make signs, wear blue and make cards for our officers,” organizer Cassandra Kistler said in a Facebook comment on the page. “It’s all about unity and respect and will be a positive event all the way around.”

Krutz said she has received messages from people who want to attend but are worried the event might be targeted by people who are anti-police.

“They’re afraid of physical violence because of what they’ve seen in the media,” Krutz said. “I’m getting tons of messages saying thank you so much for what you’re doing, we’ll be praying for you, we’ll be there in spirit.”

A screengrab from the Facebook event page for the "Back the Blue" rally set for Saturday in Tampa. [ Facebook ]

Protests have broken out across the country since video of the moments before Floyd’s May 25 death surfaced. The large majority of protests in the Tampa Bay area have been peaceful, but there have been some clashes on both sides of the bay.

Some actions by local law enforcement have drawn fierce criticism from protesters and civil rights groups who say police have escalated situations and used necessary force. Tampa police Chief Brian Dugan and other law enforcement leaders have defended their forces’ actions, saying they have no choice but to use less-than-lethal force such as bean bag rounds and pepper spray when crowds become unruly.

But even at peaceful events, tensions can run high. Demonstrators across Tampa Bay are directing anger at the officers standing before them, chanting, “No justice, no peace!” and “F--k the police.”

Tampa Officer Darla Portman, president of the Tampa Police Benevolent Association, hadn’t heard about the Back in Blue rally until a Tampa Bay Times reporter asked her about it this week. She welcomed the show of support.

“Morale is shot,” Portman said. “It’s probably the lowest I’ve seen it and I’ve been here 18 years.”

Officers are exhausted from long, hot shifts and hurt by the verbal and physical attacks, she said. They also understand the anger and frustration roiling the public, but she said the acrimony is misdirected.

“They’re always willing to improve and do better but they feel like they’re getting blamed for policies and rules and regulations that have made police officers go out there and be more like robocops instead of actual community police officers,” she said.

She said she has heard complaints from protesters that officers are remaining impassive and stoic, often behind riot gear. Portman said that’s because supervisors are telling officers not to talk, not because they’re being rude.

Officers have been told to “back off a lot" and only engage when crowds get unruly or violent.

“We have to defend ourselves and property and citizens, but we’re not agitating and going after people who aren’t doing anything wrong,” Portman said.

“Our officers come into this job having to be strong of heart and of mind because you’re going to be called names,” she said. “You can’t take it personally. That’s easier said than done when you’re getting it for 12 hours. It really works on your psyche.”

Asked about morale at his agency, Hillsborough County Sheriff Chad Chronister said in written responses that his deputies “are more committed now than ever to show our community that we are here to protect and serve them.”

“It’s unfortunate that when an incident happens involving one bad officer the bulk of law enforcement officers take the blame," Chronister said. "We have been fortunate enough to have a great open dialogue with those who have attended protests locally, and thankfully, the majority of protesters in our area have been peaceful and respectful.”

He said deputies are grateful for showings of support like the rally. He said residents and businesses have been stopping by district offices in recent days to drop off food to deputies.

“It happens often, even before the tragic incident in Minneapolis, and we are always humbled by the support, Chronister said. “Our deputies are parents, daughters, sons, sisters and brothers, just like the people we took an oath to serve and protect.”

• • •

Coverage of protests from the Tampa Bay Times

HEADING OUT TO A PROTEST? How to protect eyes from teargas, pepper spray and rubber bullets.

WHY DO POLICE KEEP CLASHING WITH PROTESTERS? We looked at law enforcement rules. They urge de-escalation but only to a point.

WHAT ARE POLICE USING? A guide to non-lethal and less-lethal weapons used in local, national protests.

WHAT ARE PROTESTERS CHARGED WITH? About half the charges filed have included unlawful assembly.

WHAT PROTESTERS WANT: Protesters explain what changes would make them feel like the movement is successful.

HOW TO SUPPORT: Whether you’re protesting or staying inside, here are ways to educate yourself and support black-owned businesses.

SOME ARE NEW, SOME ARE LONGTIME FAVORITES: 15 black-owned restaurants and food businesses in Tampa Bay

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