Organizers for the Republican National Convention hope for a peaceful week of politics. But just in case, they're deploying up to 4,000 police officers — including nearly 100 from Palm Beach County — complete with state-of-the-art riot gear and computer tracking software.
"This will be the largest event in Tampa Bay's history and there will be everything," said Laura McElroy, spokeswoman for the Tampa Police Department.
The federal government is picking up the $50 million price tag for security at the Aug. 27-30 convention,to pay for salaries, uniforms and equipment for officers from 70 different police agencies across the state.
The Palm Beach County Sheriff's Office is sending 62 officers from its Emergency Field Force and 13 officers from its corrections team, to help with jailhouse bookings. The West Palm Beach Police Department is sending up to 20 officers from its Emergency Field Force.
Both PBSO and West Palm Beach have previous experience traveling out-of-town for major events. West Palm Beach officers have been deployed to assist with hurricanes across the state. PBSO attended the 2009 G-20 summit in Pittsburgh, which drew thousands of protesters.
Sean Murray, commander of PBSO's Emergency Field Force, said it's not a glamorous job.
"In the past they've thrown urine and feces at us, they've thrown different powders and things like that," Murray said. "That's always a concern, not knowing what certain things you've been exposed to. We're going to all have protective gear on, have a plan in place, and hopefully everything works out the way it's supposed to."
The RNC is classified as a National Special Security Event, with the United States Secret Service running the show. All 4,000 officers will wear matching tan uniforms. They'll even get to keep their equipment after the convention is over.
"One of the more selfish reasons of doing this is, No. 1, we get to keep all of the equipment, which is almost $50,000 worth of equipment they provide — uniforms, gas masks, all sorts of gear we don't currently have that needs to be replaced," said West Palm Beach Assistant Police Chief Bryan Kummerlen.
Murray believes the Secret Service wants all of the officers to wear matching uniforms to send a message.
"They want commonality, a unified front, so everybody looks the same," Murray said. "That sends the psychological message that we're all one."
In addition to piling up on new gear, Kummerlen said it's beneficial to build a liaison with other police agencies in case a natural disaster or major catastrophe ever hits West Palm Beach.
"You hope if you ever need assistance, they will not hesitate to send people out to help," he said.
Tampa police have spent the last two years researching other recent political conventions. Police commanders from Minneapolis/St. Paul visited Tampa nearly two years ago to brief them on the 2008 Republican National Convention in Minnesota that included numerous protests and arrests.
Tampa, St. Petersburg, Hillsborough County and Pinellas County officers then traveled to Chicago this May for the NATO conference.
"We've studied every political convention and large international event," McElroy said. "But nothing is like seeing an event in real time. NATO couldn't have come at a better time.
"We need officers for everything from traffic posts — there are a lot of road closures, a lot of impact on our normal commute — and then there's crowd management."
Lt. Wendy Morris, a supervisor for West Palm Beach's Emergency Field Force, said West Palm officers will focus on protesters. But Morris said their job is to help protesters and not stifle them.
"We have to maintain everybody's right to free speech, and that's across the board equally," Morris said. "The delegates and the people that come here want to have their say. In Chicago the gay and lesbian rights protesters wanted to speak up and at the same time you had people from the religious right coalition there. You have to protect everybody and that makes it a little complicated but our job is to maintain that balance."
Both West Palm's and PBSO's Emergency Field Forces train together and teamed up to forcibly evict the Occupy Palm Beach protesters in March after West Palm Beach officials ordered them off the old city hall site. The protesters had been camping for months, and were provided electricity and water by the city until they were eventually forced to leave.
PBSO's Murray said he expects his officers in Tampa to focus on crowd control and perimeter security. He said 12 of his officers will be slotted as grenadiers and are trained to deploy non-lethal gas and smoke to break up violent protests.
"There can be a small number of violent protesters and
Secret Service spokesman George Ogilvie said his agency doesn't generally discuss security matters, but he said the convention will be a "team concept."
"We take input from all the agencies," Ogilvie said. "We realize we can't do this on our own, so we rely heavily on the local and federal partners that we have."
James Davis, spokesman for the RNC, said, "we have a great relationship with the Secret Service and all of the local and state authorities and we expect we'll have a great convention."