Tampa Visitors Overwhelmed by Police Presence

For some of those in town for the Republican National Convention, the atmosphere is unnerving.

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By Keith Morelli / The Tampa Tribune

TAMPA--Roving bands of police officers, clad all in khaki except for their black handguns and batons, mingled with squads of bicycle-riding officers. Posses of cops on horseback showed up at marches alongside battalions of officers in full riot gear.

Two key bridges into downtown were shut down and an iron curtain of steel and concrete cut the city's business district in two. Armed Florida National Guardsmen with military assault rifles guarded Tampa City Hall and other key buildings downtown.

That was the face downtown Tampa presented to tens of thousands of delegates, protesters and media this week, the latter of whom beamed scenes of the overwhelming law enforcement presence to living rooms across the country and world.

[Photos: Protesters Get Vocal in Tampa]

For some of those in town for the Republican National Convention, the atmosphere was unnerving.

"I think it's over-securitized," said Dani Doane, in town with the conservative Heritage Foundation. "It's like a police state out there."

Twice, Doane said, she tried to go to Liberty Plaza, a tent set up near The Forum for Republican gatherings, but couldn't get there because of the barricades.

At the 2000 RNC in Philadelphia, she said, "You could go where you liked without feeling like you're going to get yelled at."

The Rev. Bruce Wright, an organizer at the Romneyville protest campsite just north of downtown, said downtown security was over the top.

"The highly militarized buildup was unnecessary," he said. "There was a lot of misinformation and hype. It is our belief that a lot of taxpayer dollars were wasted."

Police expected a large turnout of protesters, including a contingent bent on destruction and ready to wage a running war with police. The department's 1,000 officers were joined by 3,000 officers from other agencies across the state to help keep the peace. The extra manpower accounted for the bulk of security expenses paid for from a $50 million federal grant.

As of Thursday afternoon, only one protester was arrested in Tampa during a march, a man who refused to take a bandana from his face. By Thursday afternoon, the city had recorded only two other protest-related arrests: one for a man who walked through downtown with a machete strapped to his leg and one after two protesters had a fight.

At the 2008 RNC in Minneapolis/St. Paul, police arrested 800 protesters.

Tampa Police Chief Jane Castor said she's happy the event has been so peaceful and admitted that the estimates of rabble-rousers coming here turned out to be overblown. She said there may be a couple of thousand protesters in all, if that many.

[Minimal Protests at Republican National Convention]

If that's the case, there are two officers for every protester.

"I would rather be criticized for having too many officers than not enough," Castor said Thursday afternoon. "We expected a lot more demonstrators. Hindsight is 20/20. If we had known the exact number of individuals, that it was a lot less, then the plan would have been different."

She credited the heavy police presence with keeping protests in line and for what she said was almost certainly a record for the fewest number of protest-related arrests at a national political convention.

Residents who live near downtown were split about the heavy-handed security.

Teri Phillips of Davis Islands said the images of Tampa under siege won't benefit the city.

"Shutting everything down was the wrong image," she said. "If you're hoping to sell Tampa, you're not showing it off very well. If you ride around, you see troops of cops and then they take (Curtis Hixon Riverfront Park) and barricade that. You can't even see into it from the street."

Jason Hagadorn lives on Harbour Island, where one of the two bridges was shut down for security reasons.

Even with all the barricades and checkpoints, he said, getting onto and off the island wasn't really a problem, though many of his neighbors left town for the week. He welcomed the extra security.

"I'd rather see it like this, personally, with a little overprotection than see something happen."