How Florida law enforcement prepared for the RNC.
Prepare for a Major Event
By: Jim Weiss and Mickey Davis
A couple of years before the Republican National Convention (RNC), federal, state, and local law enforcement agencies began information gathering and sharing, especially regarding radical groups and individuals. These were people who were active in obstructive, destructive, and criminal activities in other riots and protests, often referred to as direct action—both violent and non-violent actions.
During this time, oppositionist events were occurring around the country in places like Oakland, Miami, Washington, D.C., New York City’s Zuccotti Park, Seattle, Atlanta, and Los Angles. The protestors consisted of globalists, Ruckus Society, extreme leftists, unionists, and various other issues-driven protest groups.
For example, the Revolutionary Communist Party, USA (RCP, USA) has been active internationally in both the United States and Europe. Injured police officers and online chats of “kill the cops” in prior rioting and protests—such as the activities experienced in the “Occupy” movements—pointed to the coming event as being of concern.
Expected at any confrontation are in-your-face video and still cameras in the hands of the rioters and an unsympathetic media. And yes, protestors can be expected to have their own lawyers in the crowds in case of future lawsuits.
Lessons were learned from the problems and solutions in past situations. Examples were reviewed from the Free Trade of the Americas protests and rioting in Miami 2003. There was difficulty re-supplying the various needs of the police. While batteries, radios, riot control grenades, and less-lethal munitions ran low in the field, there were actually ample supplies at the Orange Bowl staging area.
Elements of the over 10,000 protestors, who were very well coordinated using radios, threw homemade grenades. To take control of the situation, rapidly deployed grenadiers were used in front of the police line. Deputies followed the mobile field force on foot. Businesses allowed officers to break into buildings to remove trespassers.
Of course, the World Trade Organization riots in Seattle 1999 are a major case study. Police cars were burned. Protestors used super slingshots, vandalized stores, broke into private homes, threw concrete pots off buildings, and threw blood, human waste, and homemade grenades at police. To counter the burning sensation from police less-lethal sprays and gas, demonstrators used gas masks and bandanas, didn’t bathe, and drenched themselves in vinegar.
Most recently, the Occupy Wall Street demonstrators and rioting in Denver, Seattle, Oakland, and New York City have provided more experience. The lessons learned from these incidents were reviewed and passed on during crowd and riot control training for the 2012 RNC.
Within the “Occupy” movement there were police concerns over the extremists / anarchists influences concerning repeated obstruction of police investigations, even when Occupy protestors were themselves victims of violent crimes committed by people moving about within or as part of the Occupy protests. There were documented reports of assaults, rapes, felony drug offences.
Whereas in the 1960s the Students for a Democratic Society spawned the violent Weathermen, a like comparison could possibly transition within the “Occupy” movement. Student protestors have been known to be paid and recruited from universities, while law students would be active taking down the names of police officers and documenting events.
Police looked at the possibility that violent, animal-rights, direct-action activists might target police horses. Training concerns addressed the likelihood that extremists would use marbles, strung wires, and caltrops (weapons with four projecting spikes in which one spike is always pointed upward when they are placed on the ground) against mounted police, and injuries inflicted on a mounted police horse would most likely result in the horse having to be put down.
There were also concerns that cyberspace activists, such as those calling themselves Anonymous and other hackers would be launching cyber terror against selected / identified police officers and law enforcement agencies, and making it personal by identifying police officers by their nametags.
Police were aware that anarchist groups and black blocs would be active at the RNC. Some define “black bloc” as an anarchist group, while others say it is more of an identifiable tactic than a group. Black bloc dissidents wear black clothing, hide their faces behind facial masks such as scarves or ski or gas masks, and wear helmets, padding, and backpacks, which can contain such items as flares and hammers for breaking windows. Placard poles are often made of thick wood or bats.
Mobile Field Force Training
Preparation for the RNC involved a number of Florida agencies. These included the police departments of St. Petersburg and Clearwater, the sheriff’s offices of Pinellas, Polk, Manatee, Orange, and Broward Counties. Obviously, the Tampa Police Department and Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office were heavily involved, the city and the county. Between 1,500 to 2,000 law enforcement officers would be on RNC duties daily, supported by the Florida National Guard.
Most of the involved agencies trained officers and deputies expected to be on the line with crowd and riot control duties. This meant they would be suited up in riot-control uniforms with riot-control shields and gear, and trained in crowd and riot control. Officers needed to also train to work together if they happened to be separated from their own unit.
Advance training took place over several years leading up to the RNC. Some was conducted as departmental training, while other training took place at the huge, rural Walter C. Heinrich Practical Training Site belonging to the Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office. This center is where the FBI and U.S. Marshals Service train, as well as police departments and sheriff’s offices, special operations units, and multi-jurisdictional task forces.
In addition to having a Boeing 727 antiterrorism training aircraft, the facility now contains outdoor sniper and other shooting ranges, an indoor dark house, an obstacle course, a six-story rappel tower, a driver training course pad, Tactical City, a shoot house, classrooms, structures used for mock disasters, and a 360-degree bomb detonation area. It is one of the most complete training facilities in the country.
Training for the RNC also included that of the Multi-Juridical Field Force, where numerous agencies met at yearly cooperative riot and crowd training events focused on the RNC, using knowledge of what worked, what didn’t work well, and what measures could be taken to address such needs.
Instructors from the Tampa Police Department, Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office and the Clearwater Police Department made up a group of training officers known as the Crowd Management Group (CMG). It was a requirement that all officers / agencies attending the RNC go through the basic Department Homeland Security three-day riot control class, along with five additional training sessions put on by the Tampa Police Department / CMG. Training consisted of line formation tactics, baton tactics, riot-control shield tactics, chemical munitions, and live fire drills. It took six months to complete the five sessions.
Some of the tactics protestors had used in the past included the “sleeping dragon,” where protectors locked themselves together in human barricades to create chaos, obstruct movement and traffic, and tie up police manpower in removing them. Other protestor tactics trained for were “tripods,” where teams of protestors set up other bound activists to hang above ground level from tall wooden tripods.
Very mobile Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office deputy cut teams practiced getting protestors out of situations where they would chain themselves together or to barriers and devices, taking care to remove them without injury due to the possibility of videos and lawsuits. In the past, activists have also drenched themselves in gasoline, and would sue police if a cut team sparked a fire. Other training involved the use of power tools by special police units to remove protestor-made barricades and road obstructions should the need arise.
Precautions also included setting up port-a-potties and welding manhole covers shut to prevent protestors from creating obstacles by removing the covers or using the sewers to their advantage.
Dedicated Mobile Field Force
According to Corporal Steven Squillante, the Training Coordinator and Assistant ERT Team Leader of the Clearwater, Fla. Police, the agency had both a mobile police force and an ongoing, dedicated mobile command force in the form of its Emergency Response Team (ERT).
The ERT is a special unit that regularly trains in riot and crowd control as well as responds to natural disasters such as hurricanes and tornadoes and officer rescue.
Clearwater Police ERT assisted in teaching riot-control shield tactics, baton tactics, line formation tactics, and chemical munitions. In this regard, Corporal Squillante traveled throughout the state training those agencies not able to attend the Tampa Police Department Academy.
The ERT unit is a large mobile command and is capable of responding anywhere in the state or country. In the past, Clearwater’s ERT traveled to assist the Cape Coral Police in the aftermath of a hurricane.
About half of Clearwater PD’s dedicated ERT deployed to Tampa for the RNC under Corporal Squillante’s command. Of ERT’s four squads, the other two remained in the city of Clearwater to deal with RNC situations there. Clearwater’s ERT assigned to Tampa wore the same tan uniforms as other uniformed law enforcement working the RNC.
Gas Mask Training
Members of the ERT trained with gas masks, and all members were exposed to a gas house in which they masked, then took off the mask, and answered some questions. Tactical / practical training also included how long it took members to gas up. In this way, they would know what to do if they entered an area that was hot with gas, including the command center. If needed, on command they would enter in a riot-control formation, and gas mask up in the thick of things while dealing with demonstrators. Gas mask drills were timed.
The team also performed extensive shooting drills in ERT riot gear in a riot line formation, as well as practicing two techniques for reloading and clearing handgun malfunctions by tap-racking on the riot shields they held. These shooting drills progressed to shooting when “gassed-up” and needing to control breathing.
The shooting-with-gas-mask drills took into account the distortions caused by the gas mask lenses and the plastic shields. Gas mask drills were timed: working to get 42 seconds down to 30 seconds including masking, checking the seal, and securing the helmet.
In preparation for riot control, ERT practiced Molotov cocktail drills. If a demonstrator approached the line with such a device, members of ERT did not need permission to shoot. However, they must be sure of what is behind the demonstrator. The same rules applied as to any other use of deadly force scenario—each shot must be accounted for.
While one ERT team fired at the range, another team was busy building themselves up by walking, carrying heavy wooden barricades, and increasing their cardiovascular energy. Physical fitness was stressed, and it was up to individual officers to stay in shape. They trained to solve any problem that might come up.
For example, to stay with a team member should an officer go down, have a malfunction or injury, or if a downed officer was engulfed by the mob. ERT members wore ballistic armor, fireproof hoods, hydration back packs, chin guards, elbow pads, padded black leather gloves, chin guards, and front and back protection. Their gear weighed between 45 and 50 pounds.
Use of Shields
ERT did extensive training with their transparent polycarbonate shields. They learned to use the shields as marital arts, defensive-tactics tools with upper and lower shield strikes, etc. Training in Use of Force was also conducted to ensure the city would stand behind the ERT officers.
Team members learned to defend against demonstrators who might grab onto an operator’s shield, and to deliver strikes with the shield when they, or the officer next to them on the line, was attacked. ERT is the only team in Tampa Bay that trains in using the riot shield as an offensive and defensive weapon.
ERT’s crowd control tactics were based on the squads being made up of three-man cells, with the team leader and alternate team leader behind the line controlling the team’s on-line officers. These online officers carry plastic shields; members operating behind the line of shield bearers make sure the shield-bearing ERT squad members are in their correct formation positions and remain lined up with the other line officers.
For example, even though ERT officers wear radio headsets, it was expected there would be huge noise factors, so a team leader trained to hold onto a line officer and physically move him into place if needed. The members of ERT were also taught the hand signals indicating what formation they were to move into.
Behind the line of shield operators and leaders and alternate leaders, there was a second line of team leaders and alternate team leaders; behind them were the special units such as less-lethal (a system for re-supplying grenadiers is a must), gas, K9, tactical medics (SWAT medics, who are also dedicated field force medics), and flank and rear guard. In the back is the ERT van.
ERT officers knew to never to under underestimate the tactics of the protestors and anarchists. Protestors would probably have their own media people, runners on bicycles, their own attorneys, their own medics, and their own bailers to bail out those arrested and return them to the action.
It was expected that they would use everything available to engage and obstruct the police, such as using dumpsters or double rows of newspaper boxes as barricades, and bicycle racks to charge police lines. Large scale looting would tax police resources. It was planned that ERT and K9 would clear buildings in such situations.
ERT tactics include training in crowd control, tactical formations such as Right Diagonal Line, Left Diagonal Line, and Officer Down. If protestors were to grab a police officer, the ERT line would advance with a controlled swinging of their shields in Officer Out Drills.
Other tactics were Wedge and Reverse Wedge. The Reverse Wedge is useful to encounter and take individual bad guys into custody while allowing the protestors avenues of escape. A series of commands might be: Squad Riot Formation, Move; Squad Wedge Formation, Move; Squad Halt; Squad Dress Right Dress, Move; Squad About Face, Move; Squad Forward March, Move; and Squad Riot Formation, Move.
Officers and deputies from five agencies made up the RNC Bike Patrol, and trained together. Bike patrols have been a proven method of law enforcement, as these officers are approachable and able to connect with the community. This patrol would be helpful to the thousands of visitors expected in the Downtown Tampa area for the planned four-day event.
One glaring defect was transporting police to where they were needed for a quick response. The city had been divided into four large sections for the RNC. Although there were several hundred officers in each section 24 hours a day, if additional officers were needed in a section for assistance or relief, transportation was made using a Greyhound-style bus for a platoon. In the future, additional vans for squads of officers could afford better availability.
In addition, efficiency could have been improved if all officers had been housed in hotels. Due to the ever-changing schedule placed upon officers, only those responding from farther away than 50 miles were housed in hotels.
Since there were so few arrests made at the RNC, the training of the crowd control units and other units such as the Bike Patrol were effective. The use of the Bike Patrol was a key to getting to an area quickly, and breaking off or following any group of individuals believed to be a potential problem.
The overwhelming police presence on every city block within the event zone and surrounding neighborhoods was successful, especially since that meant that potential rioters had nowhere to go without running into a group of police officers. In addition, each police officer had been given training to be patient with protestors. Officers gave some protestors food and water, and treated them fairly and with respect, which the protestors told the police they were not expecting.
Jim Weiss is a retired lieutenant from the Brook Park, Ohio, Police Department and a frequent contributor to LAW and ORDER. Mickey Davis is a California-based writer and author.