First encounter of protesters, police will set tone for RNC

At the 2008 RNC in St. Paul, Minn., police skirmished with protesters, arresting 800.
At the 2008 RNC in St. Paul, Minn., police skirmished with protesters, arresting 800.
Published Aug. 25, 2012

TAMPA — The first contact between police and Republican National Convention protesters is two days away. What happens Monday in downtown Tampa may well determine the success or failure of the entire week.

So say law enforcement experts who have studied large-scale political events that have spun out of control. Four years ago in St. Paul, Minn., police skirmished with protesters on the first day and never relaxed their riot-prevention mode. By week's end, they had arrested more than 800 people.

"It's too easy if a police department isn't appropriately trained . . . to deal with protests in an offensive manner," said Sam Rosenfeld, a security expert with the Densus Group in Plano, Texas. "To see every threat as a violent threat and to police it as such. If they have discipline and the self-control, it won't escalate unless justified."

The situation here is complicated by the low expectations that police and protesters have of each other. Recent reports of stockpiled bricks, ominous Internet videos, possible attempts by anarchists to shut down bridges and what protesters perceive as low-grade harassment have put both sides on edge.

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In 2008, St. Paul officials promised to maintain a "friendly, low visibility police presence." More than 1,800 people had been arrested at the RNC in New York City four years before and lawsuits had already cost the city more than $8 million.

On the first day of the RNC in St. Paul, anarchists threw rocks at police. They smashed windows, slashed police car tires and tossed sandbags over a bridge onto traffic.

By mid-afternoon, the city was covered with officers in riot gear and it continued like that through the week.

"The voices and message of the peaceful protesters went mostly unheard as the term 'protester' became synonymous with those engaged in violence in downtown St. Paul," said the report of the RNC Public Safety Planning and Implementation Review Commission.

St. Paul senior police commander Joseph Neuberger has said the protesters included law-abiding citizens, determined troublemakers and "in the middle there was a group that flowed with the tenor of the crowd. We ended up arresting a number of locals who got caught up in the emotion of the moment."

In recent years, police officials have studied departments with good track records, such as the Vancouver Police Department, which handles 200 protests a year.

"We adopt a meet and greet philosophy," said Vancouver Constable Lindsey Houghton, "where you don't see police officers with arms crossed standing in the alcove of a building. We're out interacting with the crowd in a positive way. We talk to people. We pose for pictures."

During the opening ceremonies of the Winter Olympics in 2010, about 1,000 protesters marched past a police line. They wielded sticks, spat and tossed vinegar on the officers.

"But I don't believe anyone was arrested that night," Houghton said. Several arrests were made the next day.

Chicago police received good reviews for their handling of the NATO protests in May — despite a violent skirmish on the first day. Rosenfeld, the security expert, said police must exhibit a proportional response. "The trick is to de-escalate once there is an incident."

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The Tampa Police Department and the Hillsborough Sheriff's Office say they don't want images of police officers beating protesters to flood the Internet. They don't want to see anyone get hurt. They want to avoid lawsuits.

"We got commanders from St. Paul-Minneapolis to come down to Tampa," said police Chief Jane Castor. "And (we) spent time talking with them about what they felt they did right and what their mistakes were."

Castor said she has been clear about her expectations with all of the officers involved in the event. Police will swiftly remove anyone engaging in criminal activity. All others will be allowed to exercise their First Amendment rights.

"We explained that this isn't your everyday policing," Castor said. "This is not the one-on-one you are used to. This will be policing as a unit or as a group and you will act as a group. Don't get caught up in the baiting tactics that you'll see."

"Based on past history and public statements from anarchist groups, there will be arrests," said Hillsborough Sheriff's Office spokesman Larry McKinnon. "If we're wrong, we'll all be happy."

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But protesters question whether police will control their response once the protests start.

On Aug. 17, dozens of uniformed officers showed up on the streets surrounding Occupy Tampa at Voice of Freedom Park in West Tampa. They questioned residents and searched passing cars. Two officers entered the park but were asked to leave.

"The police conduct was completely unwarranted and in many cases, illegal," said Zoe Alif, 23, of Occupy Tampa.

Castor said the response had to do with avoiding a repeat of a block party that had turned violent the week before.

Tension has mounted this week with the discovery of bricks and pipes on a rooftop near downtown Tampa. Another report said anarchists from New York planned to shut down Tampa's bridges. And recently, some anarchists published home addresses of city and police officials, including Castor.

Castor said such reports would not alter her department's approach. She said she would address her troops beforehand.

Her message: "Remember your training."

Times researcher Natalie Watson contributed to this report. Leonora LaPeter Anton can be reached at 727-893-8640.