Cleveland Says It’ll Be Convention-Ready, But Are Cops Prepared For The Trump Show?

Let's be careful out there.

With Donald Trump at center stage as the unofficial master of ceremonies, event organizers can be fairly certain that this summer’s Republican National Convention in Cleveland won’t be boring.

But as the four-day July gathering draws near, there are concerns in the Ohio city that tensions might boil over between the pro-Trump ranks and the protesters that are expected to arrive in droves.

It's not the convention itself that's drawing worried eyes. With his status as the GOP's presumptive presidential nominee seemingly locked up, Trump’s previous prediction that there would be “riots” if he were denied the nod no longer seems to be a significant concern. 

Moreover, the Department of Homeland Security has designated the Republican convention a “national special security event,” as it has the Democratic convention the following week. And in downtown Cleveland, the Secret Service is laying out an extremely restrictive security perimeter that will surround Quicken Loans Arena.

More daunting, however, is what might happen outside the security perimeter. Some in Cleveland fear that the violence that Trump has frequently encouraged at his own rallies will spill over onto the city's streets, where the combination of passionate protesters, vehement Trump backers and questionably prepared police officers threatens to create a toxic brew.

“I’m very, very concerned,” said Steve Loomis, president of the Cleveland Police Patrolmen's Association, which is the union that represents the city’s cops. “The rank-and-file guy -- the average cop who doesn’t have a horse or doesn’t have a bicycle or an undercover position with a bunch of feds — the average guy in the street that’s going to be on that line is almost as untrained as you can be.”

We don’t know where gas masks are coming from at this point. We don’t know where helmets are coming from at this point. Steve Loomis, president of the Cleveland Police Patrolmen's Association

If Loomis' concerns come true, it won't be due to a lack of funding. The federal government gave Cleveland a $50 million security grant for the convention, $20 million of which the city has said that it plans to spend on equipment and $30 million to be directed toward personnel.

Through a public bidding process, Cleveland has sought to purchase an array of equipment to deal with crowd control and potential unrest, including 2,000 riot suits and batons for its own force and for units from around the country that will be coming to assist. 

But there have been some significant hitches in training and other preparations for dealing with the street disruptions that are all but inevitable during the convention. Loomis pointed specifically to delays in equipping officers with mountain bikes, which the city promised to purchase, and said that officers who’d been assigned to the convention had taken a three-day training course several months ago but haven’t been brought back together since. 

“We don’t know where gas masks are coming from at this point,” he said. “We don’t know where helmets are coming from at this point. Everybody’s issued a plastic riot helmet when you get out of the academy. Well, my 23-year-old plastic riot helmet is sitting in disrepair in my locker because we haven’t used them.”

Loomis said that the right to gather and protest was “what’s great about this country,” but added that Cleveland police will have a “zero tolerance” policy toward any civil disobedience that crosses the line into violent confrontation.

The city has a long history of unrest set off by racial tensions, including the protests after a white police officer fatally shot Tamir Rice, a 12-year-old black child who was holding a toy gun, in 2014.

Cleveland is also heavily Democratic. While all major-party U.S. political conventions in memory have seen demonstrations, the prospect of an event there designed to celebrate a nominee as controversial and provocative as Trump is particularly worrisome.

Police don't know how many anti-Trump protesters will head to Cleveland in July.
Police don't know how many anti-Trump protesters will head to Cleveland in July.

Cleveland police officials don’t yet have estimates for how many groups and individual protesters will descend on Cleveland during the week of July 18. There doesn't appear to be a single national protest organization that is coordinating mass efforts. Instead, groups of varied interests and intentions are expected to converge on the city.

A group called The Coalition to Stop Trump and March on the RNC is among several organizations that have applied for permits to stage what it promises will be a “major protest” on the convention’s first day.

As one of the most turbulent primary campaigns in GOP history comes to its culmination, national Republican officials have sought to project calm and stability, noting that the party's convention organizers have been involved in making preparations in Cleveland for over a year. Two former Secret Service agents have been heading the RNC's security staff in the city for several months, coordinating with federal and local law enforcement agencies there. 

“We’ve been in the middle of this process of getting help from law enforcement agencies around Ohio for a long time, and it’s going to continue,” said Kirsten Kukowski, communications director for the Republican convention. “Those conversations happen every convention, and it’s always come together, and we’re very confident the same thing is going to happen. We’re extremely confident that we’re going to have the help we need.”

Cleveland’s public safety director has similarly expressed confidence that they will have the personnel and equipment required to keep the peace, although city officials have generally been tight-lipped about the details of those security plans. The public information officer for the Cleveland Division of Police referred questions about convention security to the Mayor’s Office of Communications, where an official did not respond to an interview request.

Some Cleveland officials have privately accused Steve Loomis of being alarmist — a charge that the police union president embraces as a justified reaction to the current state of affairs. 

“You’re damn right I’m panic-mongering because I’m terrified I’m going to have a bunch of hurt policemen and citizens at the end of this thing, needlessly, because we don’t have the equipment we need and we don’t have the training we should have,” Loomis said.