Tampa officials preparing to host next week's Republican National Convention say they've figured out how to make the massive police presence that will be on hand seem a little less intimidating: khaki uniforms.
The Tampa Police Department spent more than $500,000 to outfit the roughly 1,000 officers from Tampa, and up to 3,000 additional police coming to help from other parts of the state, in identical khaki uniforms that will prominently display their names and agencies.
"It's obviously cooler for the officers, and it has a more approachable look to it," Tampa Police Chief Jane Castor said.
The uniforms are only a cosmetic change, but they represent a broader effort by officials in Tampa and Charlotte, which will host the following week's Democratic National Convention, to calm nerves during what is often a chaotic event.
That means figuring out new ways to separate the law-abiding protesters from those intent on wreaking havoc. Officials in both host cities have been meeting for months with protest groups, fine-tuning parade routes and setting up public speaking stages in hopes of avoiding conflicts
Protesters see something else entirely.
They see the $50 million Congress granted each city to spend on convention security. They see the boats from dozens of law enforcement agencies that will be patrolling Tampa Bay, and the helicopters that will be patrolling overhead in Charlotte. They see new riot gear for Charlotte police and a $272,904 SWAT truck for Tampa police.
"The whole trend is increasing militarization," said Bruce Wright, a Tampa minister who has organized protests at multiple presidential conventions. Wright is helping organize an encampment called "Romneyville" near the convention site where protesters are being fed and housed.
Protesters also see a disturbing explosion of video surveillance and computer software that will help police officers monitor U.S. citizens, during the convention and after.
Police officials say they're simply trying to ensure the conventions strike the right balance of providing security for convention attendees and allowing protesters to voice their opinions.
"These conventions - a lot of cities handle demonstrations, a lot of cities handle events at their arenas, a lot of cities handle presidential movements -- but when you pull them all together, you have a pretty robust mixture going on," Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Chief Rodney Monroe said.
The 2000 Democratic convention in Los Angeles degraded to rock-throwing protesters facing off with officers firing rubber bullets and tear gas. The 2004 Republican convention in New York City resulted in more than 1,800 arrests, and the Boston Democratic convention that same year was widely ridiculed for its barbed-wire encircled "free-speech zones," which quickly earned the moniker of "protest pens."
Officials in St. Paul were intent on changing the dynamic when they hosted the 2008 GOP convention. As St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman said at the time, "The first thing people are going to notice is officers on the street with a smile on their face."
Instead, protesters on the first day of the convention found themselves confronting rows of police officers in full riot gear. Police brought in those forces because they knew anarchists were planning to flood the area on all sides.
Looking back, Matt Bostrom, who oversaw convention security planning for the St. Paul Police Department, said protesters may have been incited by the presence of officers in all black, holding batons and wearing riot helmets.
"Inadvertently, it escalates things for them," said Bostrom, the sheriff of Ramsey County, Minn. "Not because you're looking for a fight but people see them as a storm trooper."
The faceoffs quickly turned chaotic. Police arrested 284 people on the first day of the convention as they struggled to separate troublemakers from lawful protesters. On the last day of the convention, police trying to corral different protest groups ordered about 350 people onto the Marion Bridge near downtown St. Paul, then arrested all of them.
At past conventions, police mobility was one of the biggest challenges.
During the 2008 Democratic convention in Denver, police SUVs struggled to get through the massive crowds.
In St. Paul, many officers rode around in unmarked minivans, but it became difficult to quickly get through the many checkpoints surrounding the event space.
Charlotte officials will rely more on bicycles and police-issued dirt bikes to stay ahead of roving bands of anarchists.
"You have a greater opportunity to cut down on any type of disruptive behavior if you're there, rather than allowing them to set up and get the advantage," Monroe said.
The messages of the protesters will probably be similar to those in past conventions.
David S. Meyer, a sociology professor at the University of California-Irvine, said most protesters aren't challenging the Democratic or Republican parties , but the entire political system.
"We've got busloads of people coming down," said Billy Livsey, a Tampa native who was part of the Occupy movements in New York City and Tampa. "There's a lot of energy being put into this. What we have planned is very creative."
The Tea Party is unlikely to be a presence in the streets, having transformed into a political machine, helping Republicans win back the U.S. House of Representatives in 2010 and concentrating on taking over the Senate.
Sharon Calvert, co-founder of the Tampa Tea Party, said: "The only way to fix our problems was to replace the people that represented us. I don't think being out on the streets is where we're at."
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