Federal, state and city officials are finalizing plans to address potential unrest and extinguish any threats at the upcoming Republican and Democratic conventions, where the two parties will officially nominate their candidates for the U.S. presidency.
Some 50,000 people, including about 6,000 protesters, are expected to converge on the midwestern city of Cleveland, Ohio for the Republican National Convention from July 18 to 21, and nominate Donald Trump as the party’s presidential nominee.
The Cleveland mayor’s office says the “size and significance of the convention creates unique challenges” for the city, prompting officials to implement special restrictions.
A handful of physical altercations involving Democratic and Republican protesters has occurred at Trump’s rallies during the campaign season and law enforcers are planning for the possibility of more at the Republican convention in Cleveland.
As Trump and presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton verbally attack each other, resentment deepens among their followers — and that could have consequences at the two conventions.
“If individuals or groups decide to act unlawfully, plans have been put in place to efficiently address them. We understand the nature of [these events] and have anticipated the number of individuals we may encounter,” U.S. Secret Service spokeswoman Nicole Mainor told VOA.
For the past 18 months, the Secret Service has been collaborating with numerous local and federal law enforcement agencies such as the Department of Homeland Security and the Federal Bureau of Investigation to prepare for the conventions in Cleveland and Philadelphia.
Preparations are based on an “all hazards approach,” Ross Bulla, president of the Charlotte, NC-based private security firm The Treadstone Group, said in an interview with VOA. The “most likely disruptive events,” said Bulla, would probably be physical acts of civil disobedience, “anarchist style events” such as blocking streets, disabling police vehicles and attempts to bait police into verbal or physical altercations.
Like the law enforcement agencies, Bulla said some protesters devote a lot of time to train as well. As the agencies plan how to deploy their equipment so, too, do anarchists. They may stash caches of weapons ahead of time in trash receptacles, planters or newspaper racks, Bulla said.
Law enforcers are also preparing for “extraordinary crimes” such as terror and cyber attacks, added Bulla, who is consulting with several private sector entities involved in security planning for the conventions.
Of those crimes, cyber attacks are the “most significant” threat, said Bulla. Law enforcement officials are working with local infrastructure providers to thwart hackers’ attempts to cut off phones and lights and even disrupt water supplies.
Despite recent high-profile terrorist attacks in Orlando, Florida and Brussels, Belgium, Bulla said the threat of terrorist attacks does not rank as high as threats of cyber attacks and civil disobedience.
Bulla, however, warned that previous terrorist attacks can inspire new ones. “We’re certainly in a time right now when the terrorist threat has increased.” He also emphasized he is not aware of any specific or credible threats.
In the absence of threats, Bulla said law enforcers spend considerable time planning for bomb threats, minor medical emergencies and minor criminal activity such as pickpocketing, fraud, vandalism, fighting and disorderly conduct.
Law enforcement agencies have developed a “three-tiered response” to any unrest that may occur outside the convention sites, Bulla said. Uniformed and plainclothes officers first arrive on the scene, followed by horse mounted and bicycle officers. Mobile field forces, commonly known as riot police, will be on standby in both cities with armored vehicles and other riot control equipment.
At the Republican convention, Bulla said there may be “more opportunity for disruption and violence.”
Fervent protesters “on the far left fringes” are more likely to travel long distances to cities such as Cleveland and “carry out anarchist type activity,” he said, particularly if they accost Trump “protesters who may be rather passionate themselves.”
Cleveland city officials plan to enforce strict rules to control demonstrators. The city will limit marches to 50 minutes, primarily during the morning hours before delegates convene. The planned parade route for demonstrators crosses a bridge in a direction away from Quicken Loans Arena, the convention site.
Officials say an unspecified area around the arena will be cordoned off.
Meantime, a federal judge on Thursday struck down city rules for protesters within the 5.6 kilometer “event zone” around the area, declaring them unconstitutional. The rules would have banned items such as large backpacks, adhesive tape and string. They would have also limited where demonstrators could speak within the zone. Cleveland officials say they will appeal the ruling.
A week after the Republican convention, tens of thousands of people — including 30,000 delegates and 15,000 journalists — will gather in the northeastern city of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania to elect Hillary Clinton as their party’s presidential candidate.
Officials in Philadelphia are taking a different approach than their counterparts in Cleveland. Philadelphia will allow supporters of long shot Democratic presidential candidate and Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders to rally throughout the day in a park across the street from the convention site at Wells Fargo Arena.
The arena will be protected by a newly constructed perimeter more than 1.5 meters high.
Thousands of Sanders supporters are expected to congregate in Philadelphia for the convention on July 25 to 28. Through demonstrations, they hope to convince the party establishment to reform the presidential nominating process by rejecting the growing influence of corporations in the electoral process.
Philadelphia mayoral spokeswoman Lauren Hitt told VOA officials have met with protest groups and expect demonstrations outside the arena to be peaceful. “We have decriminalized many offenses like refusal to disperse and disorderly conduct to avoid mass arrests. They will be issued fines instead. [We]… feel confident that we’re prepared for demonstrations and any public safety threats.”
Because both conventions are large scale gatherings that could be targets of terrorism, the DHS has designated them ‘national special security events.’ As a result, Cleveland and Philadelphia have each received $50 million in federal grants to pay for equipment and other items to help keep the convention sites and the areas around them safe.
The most potentially disruptive events,” Bulla said, are “physical acts of disobedience “and that’s what [most of] the $50 million budget goes toward.”