As Cleveland Hits the Home Stretch Before the RNC, the City Reveals Few Security Details

The RNC chatter picked up considerable steam last week as Cleveland suddenly found itself within 100 days of the July convention. RNC honchos and local police brass assured city leaders in a security briefing at City Hall that the convention would last no longer than four days (July 18-21), allaying fears about the commitments of visiting police departments and the extended peril of civic unrest in the event of a brokered convention.

At that briefing, and at a press event Friday, specifics weren't in what you'd call abundant supply: The downtown security perimeter remains a question mark (as it has in conventions past), and the conversion of Quicken Loans Arena from Wine and Gold Cavs' Playoffs Mecca to Red, White and Blue Delegate City is still in the "planning stages." That planning is of course complicated by the uncertainty of the length of the Cavs' playoff run.

Steve King, chair of the committee on arrangements; Jeff Larson, the RNC CEO; and David Gilbert, the RNC host committee chair (also the Destination Cleveland/Cleveland Sports Commission boss) were nonetheless generous in their praise of Cleveland. They couldn't say enough about how pleased they've been with the proceedings thus far.

"We're about 100 days out in what feels like a 26-mile sprint," said Gilbert Friday, deploying one of his favorite metaphors, "and I feel extremely confident in where our community stands in planning for this convention."

Gilbert said that the host committee had raised $55.5 million of its $64 million goal and considers itself "on track." He also said that nearly 7,500 volunteers had been recruited for the convention thus far ­— they're shooting for 8,000 — and that volunteers can expect to get their first email correspondence near the end of April for expected trainings in May.  

Finally, Gilbert expressed what sure sounded like genuine sadness when he reported to Cleveland City Council that he'd been sent an op-ed from the Kansas City Star last Wednesday morning. Kansas City was a finalist destination for the RNC, and the op-ed suggested that the Missouri town had "dodged a bullet" when Cleveland was selected.

"What I didn't like about it was that it made several knocks on our city," Gilbert told council before departing for a media event at the Q. "It really, really got me. You all should read it; you'll get angry as well."  

Gilbert offered a corrective: "It's sour grapes. We are already reaping huge benefits from hosting this convention, and the eyes of the world are on us."  

The op-ed caused a minor dust-up in Cleveland, generating the same reaction from local media (outrage at real or imagined slights) as it did in its comments section. In our reading, other than the hackneyed "mistake by the lake" jab, the op-ed was much less about insulting Cleveland than it was about promoting Kansas City's alternatives (Free Will Baptists Conference) while noting the volatility of any large-scale event at which Donald Trump is, or could be, the center of attention.  But no matter. Local newscasters were "appalled":  

"I don't like another city bad-mouthing my town," said Channel 5's Leon Bibb in a solemn video editorial, "calling Cleveland something it is not while giving voice to events which have not, and may not, take place."

But there is reason for concern, if not outright alarm. In one corner, Donald Trump wields ever-more ominous convention influence. His adviser Roger Stone said in a radio interview last week that the campaign would disclose the hotels and room numbers of delegates who switched votes (from Trump to another candidate) and merrily encouraged supporters to "visit their hotel and find them."

Evan Osnos, who writes about politics for the New Yorker,  wrote in response that Trump may seek to shape the convention's outcome by using "his most unwieldy weapon of all: the latent power of usually peaceful people."

"It's easy to mock Trump for his thin-skinned fixation on the size of his audiences, but that misses a deeper point," Osnos wrote. "You can't have a riot without a mob. Even before he was a candidate, Trump displayed a rare gift for cultivating the dark power of a crowd."

In the other corner, tasked with defusing that dark power, will stand all 1,500 of Cleveland's finest, and as many as 3,500 additional officers on loan from suburban, county, state and other cities' departments.

Cleveland's safety department brass (safety director Michael McGrath, police chief Calvin Williams, deputy chief Ed Tomba, assistant safety director Ed Eckert, and brand-new EMS commissioner Nicole Carlton, the first woman to hold the job) took turns answering questions at the RNC city council briefing. They provided updates related to equipment procurement and personnel.

McGrath stated once again that staffing in Cleveland's neighborhoods during the convention would be at a 115-percent level. They'll be operating at maximum capacity and have forbidden vacation days during the convention.   

Williams said that he and Tomba traveled to Washington, D.C., the previous week to observe a nuclear summit attended by many of the world's top leaders. It was a National Security Special Event (NSSE), with security protocols similar to the RNC, and seeing the event in action was important for the police leadership, he said.

Tomba said that he has personally undergone an extensive tabletop exercise that simulated a series of emergency events, and that the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) has trained 670-plus officers on tactics related to crowd control, dignitary protection and traffic flow. Because the Secret Service is responsible for security inside the perimeter, Cleveland police's primary obligations ­— its two "missions" — will be the safety of residents and traffic flow.

Both Williams and Tomba took pains to assure council that the equipment Cleveland is purchasing with a $50 million federal grant will be used long after the convention itself. Though Tomba said the city will have "resources" at its disposal during the convention, the Cleveland police will not become a militarized force.

That's heartening news. The Marshall Project, a new media outlet focused on the criminal justice system, noted in a report last week that Cleveland's would be the first division of police to take on a major party convention while operating under federal oversight. (It also noted that while Cleveland won't purchase equipment to make its officers appear militarized, Cleveland is asking Illinois to loan three BearCats, military-style armored vehicles, and the trained officers needed to operate them. The Illinois Law Enforcement System has yet to decide if they will.)

Though the Consent Decree Monitoring Team, led by PARC's Matthew Barge, isn't assisting in RNC prep — its role is to monitor the division's compliance over time — it will be on the ground, keeping tabs during the convention.

"On a number of fronts," Barge wrote Scene in an email, "the Division will — simply by virtue of the timing of the Convention — be operating according to policies and procedures that have not yet been addressed by the Consent Decree process."

Barge noted that crowd-management environment can be "particularly challenging" to departments and that conventions of the RNC's size and scope pose "unique operational realities, even among departments that routinely handle them."

As such, he'll be watching closely. He said that he and the members of the monitoring team will be "monitoring any situations that might unfold that implicate the use of force, internal and citizen's complaint investigations, bias-free policing, supervision, or other Consent Decree issues." Real-time feedback would be a welcome change from how the department had been allowed to operate before the decree.

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