Republican convention stakeholders look back on what went right and wrong in Tampa

10/10/12 Janelle Irwin
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It’s been more than a month since the Republican National Convention left Tampa and local groups and city officials are looking back at how the event played out. In some circles, the consensus is that it went well, but some people still think police presence was overkill.

At an ACLU forum Tuesday night at the Stetson University College of Law campus in Tampa, executive director of the West Central Florida Federation of Labor, Cheryl Shroeder said the excessive militarization of downtown painted a bad picture for Tampa.

“We had 8-foot fencing everywhere, barricades closing down major roads and a sea of brown, tan police uniforms. It did not feel like Tampa, but some foreign country under martial law. Again, it was an ugly picture. I could not believe that any visitor to our city would find this attractive and realize that in the name of security, our city’s charm and character were annihilated.”

In all, 3,500 police officers from all over the state patrolled the streets of downtown Tampa. They were paid through a $50 million federal grant for convention security. The surge of officers lining streets around the city prompted many activists and journalists covering the protests to worry about getting caught in the middle of crowd control tactics. Tampa Assistant Police Chief John Bennett said all of the officers had at least some expectation of violence, but didn’t acknowledge that other groups might have that same fear.

“Most people’s fears are substantiated by something that happened in the past and whether it’s the officers that have been on the victim side of that equation or somebody that feels that they were hit with gas or something else happened as a residual effect of the police using force, the fear is substantiated by history.”

Past large-scale events like the 2008 Republican National Convention in St. Paul included both trouble-making protesters and heavy-handed police officers. To protect the city, Tampa city attorney Jim Shimberg drafted a temporary ordinance establishing an “event zone.” It included a host of restrictions like banning masks, water guns and some drink containers. The lack of trouble throughout the four-day convention prompted activists to complain that the ordinance was unnecessary. Shimberg acknowledged that it might have been a bit much.

“Looking back, there might have been more in that ordinance than we needed.”

But Tampa police were praised by some for being flexible with the ordinance. It established a parade route and a designated protest area and required permits for some demonstrations. James Shaw, an attorney with the ACLU of Florida, said city officials worked with protesters to stretch the boundaries of the event zone ordinance.

“The artist that wanted to put an ice sculpture that said ‘middle class’ and we can watch it slowly melt in the Florida sun and make a beautiful, artistic statement and the permit was for Monday when they thought that a hurricane would be coming in and they wanted to move it to Sunday and thanks to the efforts of Mr. Shimberg, they were able to do that without any problems.”

There’s been a lot of post-convention talk about what to do with the more than 100 security cameras that were purchased with federal dollars for the event. Tampa City Council has brought the issue up in two meetings and found out that because there is a one-year service contract on the cameras, they’re reluctant to make any decisions on what to do with them until next year. Shaw said the city should get rid of them or, at the very least, regulate their use.

“Yes standing out on the street you surrender some level of privacy to people who are around you, but I do think that there’s a limit. I do think that I expect that people can see me, but I don’t expect that they can see the text message that I just got from my girlfriend that I’m reading on my phone that that camera can see and record and make a public record for other people to request under the Sunshine Law.”

But Assistant Tampa Police Chief Bennett said that might not be an option.

“Logically speaking, if that money was provided by a grant for extraordinary security process and then you took them down, do we have a responsibility to return the money to the federal program for whatever reason as part of that structure.”

The issue hangs in the balance while city council members wait for the maintenance contract to expire. But that contract hasn’t even started yet. In a city council meeting last week, Police Chief Jane Castor said she expects it to begin at the end of the month. Brian Becker, who has been a frequent public speaker at city council meetings, said council members should have more authority over the fate of the cameras.

“I think we’re talking about some massive government intrusion on privacy and now it’s not even a local matter anymore, no solely a local matter if I’m hearing correctly.”

Only a handful of activists went to the event, but those who did were given the opportunity to ask questions. They ranged from inquiries about why it’s necessary to show ID when detained by a police officer to why a man was asked to submit to a visual inspection while kayaking on the Hillsborough River.


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