Tampa Police share strategies of devices and tactics they'll use with Republican convention protesters

08/17/12 Janelle Irwin
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Yesterday, the Tampa Police Department gave a behind the scenes look at security plans for the Republican National Convention. The training included a crowd control demonstration using bikes, horses and smoke bombs.

The federal government gave Tampa $50 million to fund security for the convention. Most of that money will pay for thousands of police officers from 60 outside agencies. Kris Babino, a Tampa police officer, has been training many of them

“And a lot of the ones are if this happens what should I do? Or, what if this happens? What should I do? And we try to explain to them, not give them the answer, but just modify their way of thinking so that they can come up with their own solution if it happens out there.”

The Tampa Police Department has consistently said that they will not interfere with people’s First Amendment rights. But many activists have opposed efforts by the agency and Tampa City Council to restrict areas during the convention. The Event Zone bans many items in all of downtown and some outlying areas. And police have used some of the federal grant money to buy things like armored vehicles and tactical weapons that protesters argue aren’t necessary. Police Chief Jane Castor said Tampa police also purchased custom bikes for the event.

“One of the things that we found from going to Minneapolis, St. Paul down here was the bicycle unit. They said if they had it to do all over again, they would have more bicycles. As a result, we have 200 officers on bike that will have the ease of mobility in the downtown area.”

In previous large protests like the 2008 Republican National Convention in Minneapolis, police officers have been video taped using their bikes as weapons against protesters. Tampa police’s Babino said the agency is not training officers to use bikes like that.

“We showed the officers how to use the bikes to move crowds back to stop crowds from encroaching on specific areas, blocking roadways – how to parallel groups of people that are walking on the street or on the sidewalk or whatnot.”

Their method involves turning the bikes sideways with one officer’s back wheel parallel to another’s front wheel – forming an impromptu barricade. But during a demonstration of the tactics officers have used, people on bike patrol actually lifted their bikes onto one wheel while standing behind it. It’s only one component of dispersing a crowd though. Other officers wear riot gear and form a line in front of protesters. Babino said those officers are often antagonized by activists.

“They learn how to push the cops buttons, what they can do, what they can’t do. And they’re going to walk right up to that line that they can get on and they’re hoping the officer crosses that line so that then they can make sure it gets caught on film and they can bring lawsuits and make money and all that other stuff.”

And he said that’s how police officers get caught in many incriminating pictures. But Babino defended a series of pictures displayed on the Tampa police training room wall. One showed an elderly woman in a headlock. Another showed a person getting pepper sprayed. And yet another showed a girl, head down and hair blowing off to the side of her head as a police officer stood with his arm raised above her.

“It looks like he slapped her, but she might have head-butted him in the face and he was pushing her away. I don’t know if you guys ever saw that movie, National Security with Martin Lawrence and that other guy where he’s swatting the bee and it looks like he’s just beating up Martin Lawrence with the baton. So, we explain that it’s just a snapshot in time.”

He showed other pictures of streets lined with protesters outnumbering police officers. He showed videos of them being antagonized by activists. Babino said in a situation where a crowd is causing a problem, officers are trained to be strategic about who they approach first.

“One of the things we explained to the officers is when we’re trying to break up a crowd like that, we want to go to the weakest link in that chain. We don’t want to get the guys who are all working out every day. We probably want to get the smaller people to start breaking that chain because you can easily arrest them.”

The event was held for community leaders. Tampa police called it a “citizen’s academy”. They described some of the other tactics that could be used if problems arise during the convention. Tampa Police’s Jared Douds said that could include what are called less than lethal weapons like pepper spray, tear gas and rubber bullets.

“We’ve got things that are very mild that we may use to stop people from doing what they’re doing and we’ve got some things that are maybe a little bit more assertive in encouraging people to stop what they’re doing. So we’ve got kind of a different variety of tools that are out there.”

Police also purchased five Long Range Acoustic Device, or LRADs. They’re like a bull horn on steroids. They have four small ones and one large one that is mounted to an armored vehicle. The device can be used for voice projection, but it can also be used to send a sound frequency that hurts people’s ears and disorients them. An officer from the hostage negotiation team that introduced the device didn’t describe those components to the residents and downtown business owners at the event.

“It does have some other options that we may or may not use throughout the event. Hopefully not. You know, obviously what we want to do is promote a peaceful event. We don’t ever want – like all the other specialty teams; we’d rather you not see us. We’d rather the thing go off without a hitch and you never see the police. Obviously in a real world that’s not going to happen.”

But during an interview in April, WMNF’s Rob Lorei asked police Chief Jane Castor if such a device would be used against protesters during the convention and she told him, basically, that she didn’t think so.

“And those individuals we will deal with very, very quickly – remove them with surgical precision if necessary so that we can return that safe environment to those individuals that are peacefully expressing their opinions.”

“But none of these sound weapons or heat ray weapons are going to be in Tampa?

“I haven’t heard of anything like that.”

The Tampa Police Department is also gearing up for some worst case scenarios like bomb threats. The city’s bomb squad is complete with protective suits and a robot. Police officials also talked to members of the community about road closures and detours during the week of the Republican convention. Mayor Bob Buckhorn acknowledged that there will be some inconveniences.

“So, thank you all for what you do. I apologize in advance for any inconveniences that you may have. Don’t blame me for parking problems. Don’t blame me for transportation problems. Blame Mayor Iorio, she brought this thing to us.”

The convention begins on Monday, August 27th, but the night before St. Petersburg will host a media and delegate kick-off party at Tropicana Field. Tampa Police Chief Jane Castor said Tampa will be loaning some officers to St. Pete for that event.

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