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Tampa Bay police prepare for unprecedented Election Day

“We’ve never planned for an election like this, ever,” said Pinellas Sheriff Bob Gualtieri.

As one of the most consequential elections in modern history looms, Tampa Bay law enforcement agencies are planning for Election Day in a way they never have before.

The Pasco County Sheriff’s Office has embarked on an extremely 2020 social media campaign, reminding residents to be courteous and respectful to those with opposing opinions.

“We want to make sure that the process that our Founding Fathers implemented is going safely, going smoothly and that we all respect everybody’s opinion," Sheriff Chris Nocco said in a video that the agency plans to post to its Facebook page on Monday.

A Tampa Police Department spokeswoman compared that agency’s preparations for Tuesday and beyond to planning for Gasparilla, the annual pirate parade and festival that draws more than 300,000 people.

Related: Have questions about voting in Florida? We have answers.

In Pinellas County, the Sheriff’s Office and city police departments are setting up a command post to coordinate their response — an unprecedented step for an election, said Pinellas Sheriff Bob Gualtieri.

“We’ve never planned for an election like this, ever," said Gualtieri, who is also on the ballot, running to keep his office for another four years. “It just shows the heightened state that we’re in as a country ... and with all the rhetoric being high and tensions being high, we’ve never seen anything like this before.”

To be clear, Tampa Bay law enforcement agencies said these preparations don’t mean they’re aware of any Election Day threats, or post-election chaos. But they want to be ready in case anything does go wrong — another sign of the times.

Pinellas Sheriff Bob Gualtieri walks along the sidewalk near the Pinellas County Supervisor of Elections Office in downtown St. Petersburg on Oct. 22.
Pinellas Sheriff Bob Gualtieri walks along the sidewalk near the Pinellas County Supervisor of Elections Office in downtown St. Petersburg on Oct. 22. [ SCOTT KEELER | Times ]

The coronavirus pandemic has pushed many voters toward mail ballots, even as President Donald Trump has repeatedly cast doubt on the validity of the practice, and misinformation is at an all-time high.

“You have to have a mechanism to figure out what’s good information and what’s disinformation," said Clearwater police Chief Dan Slaughter, addressing the difficulty for law enforcement sussing out what’s real and what’s rumor.

Already, some Florida voters have been hit with voter intimidation emails from senders claiming to be from the far-right group Proud Boys, although the group denied involvement. Government officials have suggested Iran may be behind the threats.

Related: Have you experienced any trouble voting in person in Tampa Bay? Tell us what happened.

And armed guards showed up on Oct. 21 at an early voting site in downtown St. Petersburg. They said they were there to provide security for Trump supporters, according to Gualtieri, but the Trump campaign denied hiring security at that location.

Pinellas Supervisor of Elections Julie Marcus feared it could be seen as voter intimidation. The incident spurred the sheriff to station deputies at early voting sites — a move that drew criticism from the candidate running to unseat Marcus.

“The problem was: the presence of individuals carrying guns that intimidate voters," Democrat Dan Helm said in a statement. “The solution cannot be: the presence of individuals carrying guns that intimidate voters.”

Gualtieri said he’s heard concerns that, to some residents — particularly people of color — the presence of officers at the polls isn’t comforting. But he contended that his decision prevented more issues than it created.

Regardless, there won’t be uniformed officers at all 166 Pinellas polling locations on Election Day, Gualtieri said. It’s logistically not possible, he said, “and probably not necessary.”

Instead, he split the county into 19 zones that will each have uniformed deputies or city police officers monitoring polling places. Undercover officers will also be around “to provide those eyes and ears without having uniforms,” he said. In all, about 70 officers will be available to address any concerns on Election Day.

“We have a responsibility and an obligation to make sure that every voting site is peaceful and creates the right environment for people to have access and uninterrupted access," he said.

Related: Pinellas Sheriff will station deputies outside early voting sites

The Pasco County Sheriff’s Office will have extra deputies near voting sites, spokeswoman Amanda Hunter said. In Tampa, officers will be monitoring polling sites, too, spokeswoman Jamel Lanee' said. In the event of an issue, an officer and a supervisor will be sent to investigate.

“We are aware that there’s a lot more voters out there who are anxious to vote, and with the climate obviously, we want to be prepared for anything that may arise," Lanee' said.

The Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office hasn’t changed its election plan from past years, said spokeswoman Merissa Lynn. Deputies will be available to respond to incidents “the same as any other day of the year,” she said.

Related: Tampa Bay Times 2020 Voter Guide: 111 Local candidates on the issues

Agencies are thinking past the election, too, and will have extra staffing available in case there are post-election incidents.

The St. Petersburg Police Department, for example, will have extra officers working on Election Day and is prepared to maintain those staffing levels if, say, election issues spark civil unrest, spokeswoman Yolanda Fernandez said.

“It’s really hard to tell," she said. "We’ve had some (elections) that were resolved very quickly and others that took days.”

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