TAMPA — A lot went into Tampa's trouble-free protests during the 2012 Republican National Convention: Intense planning. Lessons of past conventions. Big spending on extra officers, training and equipment. Even a tropical storm.
And then there's this: An undercover police operation in which officers infiltrated and took leadership roles in the protest groups they were surveilling.
"They were aware of plans that were afoot to do mischief," Tampa police Maj. Marc Hamlin said of the undercover officers, who came from a variety of agencies.
The undercover intelligence, he said, was "at the highest level of importance" for an RNC that had no violent clashes, little property damage and fewer arrests than are typically made in the fourth quarter of a Tampa Bay Buccaneers home game.
Normally, police wouldn't acknowledge, let alone discuss, such an undercover operation. But Hamlin talked a little about the 2012 RNC efforts Monday because the secret was already out. Last month, a reporter for the Cleveland Plain Dealer, attending a maritime security conference in Cleveland (which is hosting the 2016 RNC), heard him describe how police managed to join and "take over" protest groups.
"They became, like, the leaders of the group," Hamlin confirmed Monday.
Using undercover officers for protests or big public gatherings is not unusual, either in Tampa or anywhere else, he said. Plainclothes officers work Tampa's annual Gasparilla pirate parade. Organizing for the undercover operations began as soon as police began planning for the Republican convention, which took place the last week of August 2012.
"You're only as good as your intelligence," Hamlin said. "Everything else is reactive."
During the convention itself, plainclothes officers joined protest marches and used smart phones to send live video to commanders. The National Journal reported in 2012 that RNC authorities could use facial-recognition software to help identify demonstrators, if necessary, but Hamlin said, "we didn't use it in Tampa. I don't know about St. Pete."
News of the undercover operations came as no surprise to one protest leader.
"They did it in the 2008 RNC. Why wouldn't they keep doing that?" said Jared Hamil, 27, an activist who helped coordinate plans for the Coalition to March on the RNC. "I'll say about 2012, there were lots of people who came to help organize for the protests that I had never met before and that shortly after the protests I never saw again."
Intelligence operations were just one piece of a larger effort that made for peaceful demonstrations and only two arrests, compared to 10 to 15 for a Bucs game.
Tropical Storm Isaac appeared to keep many protesters home. The National Lawyers Guild reported at least 16 busloads of protesters from other cities were canceled as a result of the storm.
The city also used a $50 million federal security grant to bring in, train, equip, house and feed a couple of thousand additional officers from around Florida. Police bought some heavy-duty vehicles and made a wide range of communications and computer upgrades. The Secret Service ringed convention sites with concrete and steel.
Before the convention, officials scoured downtown for suspicious items, turning up pipes and sticks, plus 300 tiles stacked on a parking garage roof, bricks stashed in an electric box and a parked Mercury Cougar loaded with medical supplies and riot gear.
As important, police worked to de-escalate confrontations. When demonstrators baited and taunted officers, majors reminded them over their radios, "Remember your training. Stay calm."
Then-police Chief Jane Castor has said police tried to learn what protesters were trying to accomplish and, when possible, to work with them. If marchers wanted to close a street so photographers could document the action, police generally let them do it. At one point, assistant police Chief John Bennett kneeled down to ask a group of protesters lying in a downtown street to clear out because the road was a route to Tampa General Hospital. They did.
The undercover officers were key in these efforts because some of the most loosely organized groups had no identifiable leaders who would take responsibility for the group's agenda, Hamlin said. City officials could prepare to work with protesters because they had good intelligence on what they wanted to accomplish.
The cat-and-mouse went both ways.
"Anyone that was real, they didn't go out of their way to meet me," said activist Amos Miers, 38, who said every effort he was involved was for peaceful and lawful demonstrations. "The ones that did, they were suspect. It was odd that certain types of people would seek me out to be my friend."
At one point, Miers said he organized a separate meeting of about six or eight people, all of whom he suspected of being informants or more.
"What does that mean when law enforcement are taking leadership roles in protest movements?" he asked. He said it means a government crackdown on dissent, thwarting grass-roots efforts to bring about democratic change. "It's saying that the tools that we supposedly have under the Constitution to create change and to address problems are broken."