The Security Challenge in Cleveland

The city says its police are ready for the Republican National Convention, but in the year of Trump, everyone is on edge.

Ross D. Franklin / AP

Modern party conventions are designed to be dull—or, at least, extremely predictable. Inside the hall, a candidate’s aides work to create a meticulously stage-managed event, with no surprises from speakers or surrogates. Outside the hall, law-enforcement agencies and city officials try to ensure a similar level of control, granting enough room for constitutionally mandated protests while still guaranteeing safety and limited disruptions to the conventioneers the city wooed.

But conventions are just one way in which Donald Trump has shaken up this campaign season. The Republican National Convention in Cleveland is on course to be an unusual event: Many top party figures are skipping it, some officials are still trying to topple Trump, and the plans of the presumptive nominee, a renowned showman, are still opaque. Because of this chaotic situation, and because Trump rallies have sometimes attracted violence throughout the election process, there’s some concern that the scene outside the Quicken Loans Arena could be equally chaotic. The people of Cleveland, attendees, and protesters are bracing for a raucous scene in the streets of the Forest City.

Cleveland officials say they’re ready. “We are prepared, and we have done our due diligence in many different ways,” Mayor Frank Jackson said at a May 31 press conference. In an interview, Jackson spokesman Dan Williams elaborated: “It depends on what you mean by ready,” he said. “We’re ready because we have the right security forces with the right training. It’s not just about security. We have a whole lot more to offer. We’re going to be the best host for people that we can be.”

These assurances haven’t soothed activists, attendees, or the press, whose reports nervously speculate on the state of security. Worries about preparation were exacerbated by a late-June court battle between the city and three activist groups that sued it over demonstration guidelines. The plaintiffs were Citizens for Trump, the Northeast Ohio Coalition for the Homeless—both of which are exactly what they sound like—and Organize Ohio, a progressive grassroots group. In other words, it was a classic American Civil Liberties Union coalition of strange bedfellows. Citizens for Trump and Organize Ohio wanted closer access to the convention for marches. The Coalition for the Homeless was concerned about how the huge square security zone around the convention arena would affect homeless people in downtown Cleveland. A judge ultimately deemed the 3.3-mile security zone around the arena excessive and unconstitutional because it didn’t give protesters enough proximity to the site; demonstrators have a constitutional right to be seen and heard by the targets of their demonstration. The city settled and loosened the rules for permitting and significantly reduced the size of the security zone. Now, protesters will be able to get closer to the convention itself.

“Every municipality starts out with, ‘We love the First Amendment, we love everybody’s rights, we’re going to be there for them,’” said Christine Link, the executive director of the ACLU of Ohio, which brought the suit on behalf of the plaintiffs. “They spin that for months, and then the convention comes and they arrest everybody.”

Battles like this, usually waged by the ACLU, are staples of pre-convention wrangling. Host cities, after waging a years-long crusade to win a convention, want to make sure that the event is as sparkling and trouble-free an advertisement for the city as possible. “The city of Cleveland, like most convention cities, is taking the position that this is a business deal with the Republican National Committee,” Link said. In other words, the convention area is effectively privatized, pushing ordinary citizens out and establishing a special, temporary jurisdiction. Law enforcement, in turn, would just as soon have protesters as far away from the arena as possible, since it gives them more control over a messy, elaborate situation. “It takes a lot of planning and forethought,” said Ray Kelly, who was commissioner of the New York Police Department during the 2004 Republican National Convention in Manhattan. “We started planning 18 months before—before we knew whether the convention was going to come. You have a lot of moving parts.”

From Cleveland’s point of view, there’s quite a bit that city officials would like to keep under tight control. Every convention functions as a lure for demonstrators from a variety of causes, both friendly to the party convening and antithetical to it. The fact that Republicans will be nominating Trump is expected to produce an even more elevated volume of anger and energy. The Trump campaign has already proved to be a magnet for violence so far, whether it’s the frequent examples of Trump backers punching or otherwise attacking protesters or the cases when protesters have attacked Trump supporters. In March, Trump had to cancel a rally after melees between protesters and supporters broke out. Plus, groups ranging from Black Lives Matter to the white nationalist Traditionalist Workers Party have said they plan to stage demonstrations. With tensions running especially high after the deaths of Philando Castile, Alton Sterling, and five officers in Dallas, nerves are on edge. “I think everybody is concerned about the potential for violence at the convention,” Ryan Lenz, of the Southern Poverty Law Center, told McClatchy.

Huge challenges are not unprecedented, Kelly said, pointing to the 2004 Republican convention in New York City. “What we had was the core of an administration that was prosecuting an unpopular war,” he said. “It was labeled the biggest demonstration at a political convention, marching right past Madison Square Garden.” But opinions on whether that convention was handled successfully vary widely. Link called it “the biggest debacle in recent history.” New York City settled lawsuits connected to the RNC for $18 million just two years ago, and the convention raised serious questions about civil liberties and how law enforcement handles protests.

Some of Cleveland’s preparations suggest wariness. On June 29, the City Council voted to buy $50 million worth of protest insurance, at a cost of $9.5 million. As The Plain Dealer noted, that dwarfs the $1.5 million the city paid in March for $10 million worth of coverage, as well as the $1.7 million that the city of Tampa paid to insure itself ahead of the 2012 RNC. The city is also spending heavily on riot equipment, including 2,000 riot-control suits, special batons, and more. (The full request for bids is here.) The city’s municipal court has even announced extended hours to process a large number of expected arrests.

There’s a sense of concern among journalists, too. “To an uncannily consistent degree, whenever I’ve mentioned that I’ll be there working as a journalist, the response has been, ‘Bring a gas mask,’” David Giffels wrote in The Atlantic recently. Several months ago, jokes like these were circulating in the press as black humor. Increasingly, they’ve taken on the tone of real concern about what to expect. Reporters who were frustrated by the suffocating security perimeter in Tampa, and to a lesser extent in Charlotte, four years ago are now coming to see some advantages to a heavy police presence. In May, The New Yorker tagged along with a group of journalists receiving hostile-environment training from a retired British commando.

The task for law enforcement is tricky. Kelly ticked off the challenges: coordinating with the Secret Service and any other agencies on the ground; being prepared to investigate incidents as they occur; deploying lawyers to advise the police on legal questions that arise, especially given complications like court orders about demonstrations; escorting VIPs to and from hotels; being ready to send uniformed officers to multiple hotspots simultaneously. “When something happens, you have to be ready to respond to multiple events,” he said. “You can’t just focus on the potential of one event happening.” The NYPD, Kelly added, conducted numerous table-top exercises ahead of the convention to prepare.

Williams, Mayor Jackson’s spokesman, declined to speak about how the city has prepared, calling it “sensitive.” But in press conferences, officials have dropped some hints. Jackson said officials have visited every city that hosted a convention over the last dozen years. As in New York, preparations began before Cleveland had even won the bid and have also included table-top exercises. Cleveland Police Deputy Chief Ed Tomba, who is taking a lead on convention work, said the best tip the city received from previous hosts was to increase foot and bicycle patrols, creating a large presence of officers in less formal, “Class B” uniforms. Tomba said officers will be equipped with body cameras, but the department has also created a video unit to keep a record of policing—a move that may help resolve conflicts after the fact but will also raise hackles about surveillance.

The task for Cleveland is complicated by the fact that, because it has a relatively small department, it is relying on outside police departments to assist. That’s not unusual for a convention. In Charlotte, Chicago police officers manned the main convention halls, police from Durham, North Carolina, stood outside, and various agencies took over traffic control at major intersections, turning them into de facto exclaves of far-flung home districts. (Dancing deputies from Clayton County, Georgia, became deserving minor internet celebrities.) But importing cops does bring complications. Officers from out of state have to be trained in local law. They need accommodations. There has to be a clear chain of command connecting them to Cleveland officials. There have to be agreements about liability, insurance, and worker’s compensation in the event of injury.

It would be easier to have faith in the Cleveland police if the department weren’t so troubled. The city has been rocked by the unsettling police shootings of 12-year-old Tamir Rice in 2014 and of Timothy Russell and Malissa Williams in 2012. Under a 2014 consent decree, the Cleveland police were required to clean up their act and are now subject to Justice Department oversight. The ACLU’s Link suggested that the protesters weren’t the greatest threat to the peace at the convention: “Who’s going to spill the blood? In this town, it’s usually the police.”

Cleveland officials insists that the police are ready, but there are reasons to believe otherwise. The president of the Cleveland police union, Steve Loomis, has repeatedly warned that the cops aren’t ready. “We still have no gear issued, they are telling us no body cameras, no radios, and now we have a 28-page document that will literally be impossible to adhere to should things start getting bad,” he told Cleveland Scene in June. “My guys, (and by that I mean ALL uniformed police officers) are completely and totally set up for failure. Little or no gear or training to date, very little help from outside agencies, historically violent protesters at RNCs (without Trump factor).”

Maybe Loomis’s words should be taken with a grain of salt: The police department and the city have been at odds for years, in part because of the Justice Department settlement. (“They hate each other so much,” Link said.) But outside departments are voting with their feet. In May, the police department in Greensboro, North Carolina, decided to withdraw from a commitment to send 50 officers to the RNC, citing lack of readiness as a reason. (Other reasons included the fact that Cleveland would not provide worker’s comp, putting the city of Greensboro on the hook.) Even some suburban departments near Cleveland have opted out of participation.

One essential part of maintaining calm during the convention is gathering as much information as you can ahead of time, Kelly said. “You need intelligence, as much as you can reasonably, lawfully get,” he said. “A lot of this is just open-source information. Who’s coming to the convention? What do they say on their websites, Twitter feeds, Facebook? That will give you a lot of information.” The NYPD also sent personnel to the sites of other major demonstrations, like the 1999 Seattle WTO protests, to gather information. Activists in Cleveland report they’re already receiving visits from the police and the FBI about their plans. The police say this is benign outreach; the activists view it as intimidation intended to suppress protests.

The notion of intelligence does point to one peculiarity of the discussion about the convention ahead of time: Even though Trump has made the threat of terrorism a leitmotif of his campaign, there has been more focus on the havoc that protesters could wreak. The result, critics contend, is that too many of the regulations restrict civil liberties at the expense of logic. Link mentioned that the original proposed safety zone banned tennis balls, even though Cleveland State University’s tennis courts were within the area. “They were going to be frisking everybody on the street,” said Tim Selaty Jr., the head of Citizens for Trump, one of the ACLU plaintiffs. Under the proposed rules, “you could have a gun, but you couldn’t have paper or a string on you.”

Selaty is pleased that the lawsuit was successful, but he is still somewhat bitter about the outcome. “We barely get what we want,” he said. Citizens for Trump was one of the first groups to apply for a permit to rally at the convention, applying in April, when it seemed that GOP elders might try to unseat Trump during the convention. Once Trump seemed more assured of the nomination, Citizens for Trump switched to a more celebratory plan. Selaty, a veteran organizer, said he’s used to the challenges, but usually they involve raising money and getting people to show up. In Cleveland, he said, the challenges are poor communications and a permitting process that seems determined to prevent success. He was still in the process of trying to figure out permitting under the new system, after the judge’s ruling, when we spoke, but he’s pleased that the court battle prevented a bad precedent. “Our biggest victory is that we got them to reduce the perimeter down to something that makes constitutional sense,” Selaty said.

The uneasy truce between demonstrators and the city will depend in part on how well the police are able to maintain calm. And, as the least predictable and stage-managed convention in years, that’s no sure bet.