Nothing happened in Tampa

The City of Tampa received rave reviews for its handling of the crowds at the Republican National Convention in August. Police there took a smart, sensible and successful approach to security and handling the expected protestors.

As a result, news reports about heavy-handed police were markedly absent from the GOP’s convention coverage—a delightful departure from the norm. Let’s face it: the media looks for controversy, and when officers battle civilians on the streets of a city during a high-profile event, it makes for sensational headlines. And when things are uneventful? Well, “Nothing Happened” isn’t a headline that sells papers or compels viewers to follow the crawl across the bottom of a TV screen.

But the City of Tampa, under the leadership of Police Chief Jane Castor working hand-in-hand with Hillsborough County Sheriff David Gee, provided a classic lesson for law enforcement in how to turn what could have been a volatile meeting of differing philosophies into a textbook example of rising to the occasion.

The playbook was simple: Be prepared, engage in the unexpected and shower protestors with kindness. It turned out to be a winning combination that also left the press corps with nothing to report but, well, good things.

When one group was boxed in between two law enforcement-held positions, a path was carved out so protestors could return to their original positions without creating any conflict. Police helped feed the crowds when the food and provisions destined for them weren’t delivered as anticipated. The LEOs on the scene also made certain that the protestors knew police were not there to interfere with lawful protest, but only to enforce the law. All reports I’ve read say the police were uniformly polite and respectful to everyone with whom they dealt—delegates, residents, businessmen and protestors alike. And, to start things off on the right note, officials met with protest leaders prior to the convention in order to work out the ground rules.

Protestors foster a dilemma for law enforcement. The premise seems to go against the concept of law and order. We are, by nature, a country that tolerates both free speech and the lawful expression of ideas; protest is very much a part of our national heritage. And look what happens when police don’t take a thoughtful approach to protestors.

The 1968 Democratic National Convention occurred during a time of public unrest and violence. There were high-profile assassinations, the Vietnam War was growing in unpopularity and groups like the Yippies staged mass demonstrations. In handling the protestors, Chicago Police edged too far over the line and provoked a national outcry that led to charges of police brutality that are still pointed to as a model for how not to handle large crowds.

The bad press placed at the feet of the police at that convention has haunted both law enforcement agencies and cities for a long time. Even while Tampa and Charlotte were gearing up for the 2012 conventions, the specter of convention violence past found its voice in the media. Reporters were betting on things going wrong and, due to some smart management and well-trained and highly disciplined officers, they didn’t get that story.

The take-away from Tampa has enormous implications: by meeting the demonstrators with politeness, kindness and courtesy, the expectations of violent and mean-spirited clashes dissipated. Tampa’s officers carried the day by simply refusing the take the media bait. And they not only preserved their city’s good name, but they did all of law enforcement a good turn in the process.

A 12-year veteran of police work, Carole Moore has served in patrol, forensics, crime prevention and criminal investigations, and has extensive training in many law enforcement disciplines. She welcomes comments at is the author of “The Last Place You’d Look: True Stories of Missing Persons and the People Who Search for Them” (Rowman & Littlefield, Spring 2011).

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