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Jail set up for RNC protesters a lonely post

Published Aug. 31, 2012

TAMPA — To prepare for an expected 1,000 protester arrests during the Republican National Convention, the Hillsborough Sheriff's Office paid $140,349 for software that would alert deputies if an inmate had been sitting in one place for too long.

To treat the injured, they paid $240,000 for medical staff. They bought a new fence, food and electrical updates, and got a green light to spend $1.5 million in overtime pay.

Then this week, on a dry-erase board in their flat-screen-filled command center, they began to tally the arrests. The grand total, by midday Thursday:

Two.

That's right. At the Republican convention four years ago in St. Paul, Minn., 800 were arrested. Eight years ago in New York, 1,800. But Thursday, Hillsborough Col. Jim Previtera could rattle off his booking list in one breath:

The guy with the machete. And the kid with the bandana.

"I was surprised, probably, on Tuesday," Previtera said. "I was a little surprised we didn't see more arrests."

He thinks Tropical Storm Isaac had a lot to do with it. But that doesn't matter. He told his staff to prepare for one or 1,000.

"If we had encountered a large number of inmates and we had to manage them and we didn't have a system like that, it would have been a nightmare," Previtera said. "People put life jackets on boats and never use them. When they need to use it, it's the best purchase they ever made."

Most of the money spent came from a $50 million federal grant for RNC security.

Throughout the week, Previtera said, sheriff's officials have been revising schedules to cut down on hours and overtime. They sent home deputies from other counties.

Not all was wasted, he said.

The jail's work with the courthouse to set up a temporary courtroom might be the first step in creating a more efficient way to deal with packed dockets.

And while they had to return the equipment they leased for that inmate tracking system, the software now exists in case they need it for an emergency.

Previtera said he and deputies sat around the other night in the empty jail, watching coverage of the convention and pondering what they could have done differently. "The only response," he concluded, "is bring a more comfortable chair."

Around noon Thursday, a German Shepherd bounded toward the colonel from the plywood-lined queue in which the arrested protesters would have awaited booking.

A deputy followed.

"Where's your toy?" she asked the dog.

Bensha, who would have been sniffing the buses between inmate transports, spent some of her week doing drug searches at the Falkenburg Road Jail. But she also spent time at the emptied-out facility on Orient Road.

"Bensha's entertainment when things get slow," Previtera said.

Alexandra Zayas can be reached at azayas@tampabay.com.



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