Tampa Police say they'll work with local reporters on Republican Convention logistics

04/26/12 Janelle Irwin
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Earlier this month, Tampa Police Chief Jane Castor hosted a media roundtable to gather concerns from local journalists about reporting during August’s Republican Convention. Representatives from news organizations across the Bay area asked about everything from parking to wearing gas masks.

Most of the answers to reporters’ questions started with the words “We’ll tell you in June”. That’s when Chief Jane Castor plans to have a set of pamphlets with what she calls ground rules for reporters. She also plans to meet with local news organizations to answer their questions in a more personal forum.

“We’re going to take all of this information – the questions, the issues – back to the various subcommittees and ask them for their input and then we’ll bring that back to you in the form of a visit to the stations to lay out the ground rules and to answer all of the questions that have been raised today.”

One of the biggest concerns of reporters was whether or not they could get face to face with protesters without landing themselves in trouble.

“We’re going to do the best that we can to ensure the media has access to the entire convention, to everything that occurs. It’s important. It’s important to the community for us to be able to showcase Tampa to the nation and it’s important that you’re able to show that picture.”

With a sometimes ugly precedent set by previous conventions, some reporters are worried that they will get caught between police and protesters if something does go wrong. A proposed ordinance that lays out what was first called the “Clean Zone” throughout downtown Tampa and some outlying areas would prohibit anyone from using gas masks. That includes members of the media. Castor said that ordinance has not been finalized yet. But Assistant Police Chief John Bennett said in most cases it will be the journalist’s responsibility to follow instructions from police if there is a problem.

“We want you to be safe and obviously we want you to have access as well. But as we lay out these designs, unless it’s an event like a parade and it needs to have a right of way available or if it’s a static outdoor public assembly area, we’re going to try to get you whatever access is reasonable and safe. You know, it’s really going to be limited by what you feel and, of course, if anything happens that we have to take any kind of action – as minimal and surgical as possible – then you just have to respect that space where we’re working. And really, that’s the general overview.”

Chief Castor also wants to look into some sort of credentialing process for local media.

“How do you differentiate between the credible media and the bloggers?”

And for those who are deemed “credible”, there was also some talk of having dedicated areas for media. Castor described it as a safe zone where reporters could set up equipment without worrying about it being damaged or getting in the way. But efforts like those in other areas have meant reporters were shoved out of the way. That’s something Tampa Police’s spokesperson Laura McElroy said isn’t going to happen.

“We’ve established just with the big events that we have and unfortunately, police funerals and we’re very cognizant of you guys needing to be close to the action and that we don’t set you up at a SWAT callout a mile away. We make sure that you have a good shot and that will continue with this event as well.”

Tampa City council is considering an ordinance that would prohibit certain items and actions within what the city is now calling an "Event Zone". After the chaos surrounding the 2008 Republican National Convention in St. Paul, officials are taking steps to prepare for a huge jump in arrests that week. And with that, some reporters wanted to make sure they would have quick access to arrest reports. Chief Castor said her agency isn’t handling that, but timeliness is being considered.

“You’ll be getting – the Sheriff’s Office is handling all the booking details – you’ll be getting information in a very timely fashion. It’s our hope that there aren’t any arrests, much less mass arrests. But, you know how we are in law enforcement. We prepare for the worst and hope for the best. So, that information will come out in a very timely fashion.”

There’s also the issue of getting to the area. With tens of thousands expected to descend on downtown Tampa, getting from point A to point B could be a problem for some reporters. Especially those on deadline. Chief Castor said the agency is doing all they can to alleviate some of those concerns.

“Traffic probably, will be our number one issue. And so the more mass transit you can do…”

"So, it’s not going to be open access to just drive your car?"

“It’ll be open access. What will be the most prohibitive is the volume of traffic and that will be dependent on the hours as well. So, we’re looking at individuals who are working in the downtown area to have them bussed in and try to eliminate as much traffic as we can ahead of time.”

But reporters weren’t the only ones asking questions. Castor wanted to know how many reporters to expect. And Tampa police’s Laura McElroy asked reporters whether some of her assumptions were safe ones.

“Once you bring your truck and your setup, would you have 24-hour coverage there? From the morning show, to the evening show, to 11pm, you’re never going to leave that truck. Somebody’s always going to be working?"

"That may be true, but keep in mind Laura, with trucks, you’re going to have to leave them for gas or whatever. They’re going to have to move at some point within that 24-hours to leave and then come back."

Overall, officials expect about 15,000 journalists in and around the Tampa Convention Center during RNC. Castor and McElroy said they will look into providing some sort of medium – like a website – for both local and national media to reference.

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