Justice Dept. looks to assist Cleveland with RNC security amid concerns

Kevin Johnson, USA TODAY
5:23 p.m. EDT June 29, 2016

(Photo: Jeff Swensen, Getty Images)

WASHINGTON — The Justice Department dispatched a delegation of law enforcement officials to Cleveland earlier this month to meet with local police officials amid persistent concerns about the city’s readiness to secure the upcoming Republican National Convention.
Ronald Davis, director of the department's Community Oriented Policing Services office, said the group, which included senior police officials from Chicago, New York, Los Angeles, Tampa, Charlotte and Seattle, was part of the department’s “critical response’’ unit designed to provide needed technical assistance to law enforcement and public safety authorities.

The daylong session in Cleveland, where thousands of protesters are expected to descend next month as
Donald Trump officially claims the Republican presidential nomination, marked the first time the unit — created in 2013 — was dispatched to deal with a political convention.

Davis said the group was assembled based on its collective experience in dealing with major events, including the recent visit of
Pope Francis to the U.S., which drew hundreds of thousands of people to appearances inWashington, New York and Philadelphia.

Cleveland, however, represents perhaps an even more complicated scenario, as protesters from a constellation of often- conflicting causes are expected to vie for the attention of convention delegates and control of a national stage.

Civil rights advocates had expressed serious concerns about the city's preparations, suggesting that officials were inviting clashes between police and protesters by closely restricting protesters' access to the convention site and other areas of the city.

In a step toward easing those restrictions Wednesday and resolving a legal challenge brought by the ACLU of Ohio, the city agreed to reduce the overall size of the downtown event zone from 3.5 square miles to 1.7 square miles.

Municipal authorities also agreed to alter the route for protest marches to pass closer to the convention site at
Quicken Loans Arena, ACLU spokesman Steve David said.

The revisions, primarily the reduction of the designated event zone, is expected to free up access to downtown parks and other sites closer to the convention for protesters and the general public. The legal challenge, which is expected to be formally resolved as soon as next week, was brought on behalf of such disparate interests as Citizens for Trump and advocates for the homeless.

"This agreement prevents the 2016 RNC from being defined by an unnecessary conflict between freedom and security,” said Christine Link, ACLU of Ohio's executive director. “The RNC offers a unique stage to groups from all sides of the political spectrum to lift their voices to a national audience. The new rules ensure that people have meaningful opportunities to express themselves on some of our most important national issues.”

It wasn't immediately clear Wednesday how the new access provisions would affect the convention security plan, a far-flung operation that has been in development for months.

Davis said the meeting earlier this month provided local officials a needed "moment of pause'' and an opportunity to discuss "lessons learned'' from other cities, which have hosted recent conventions.

Convention preparations have posed a range of challenges for local authorities, from drawing hundreds of police officers from other agencies to assist in the security effort to the required coordination with the
U.S. Secret Service, which oversees the event.

"Clearly, it's going to be a logistical challenge,'' Davis said, adding that the chief benefit of the critical response program was to provide local officials a "sounding board.''

The director said the group visit was advisory in nature and not intended to provide an assessment of the city's overall preparations.

"They (Cleveland authorities) get feedback from honest brokers,'' Davis said.

Cleveland police officials did not immediately respond to requests for comment Wednesday.

In an interview earlier this month, Cleveland Deputy Police Chief Wayne Drummond said security preparations were proceeding on schedule to accommodate a large and active protest movement. He acknowledged some "concern'' over the hostile tone that has often shadowed campaign events and rallies for Trump, but he said local police have "learned'' from those incidents.

“Individuals can come and they can exercise their constitutional rights,’’ Drummond said. “My concern is for the individuals who step outside those bounds. In the city of Cleveland, we will not tolerate that.’’