GOP convention organizers tighten security plans amid fears

Thursday’s deadly shooting of Dallas police officers will influence security plans for the Republican convention in Cleveland in less than two weeks.

Security experts and Republican officials continue to stress confidence in the ultimate plans to keep convention-goers safe. But Cleveland Deputy Police Chief Ed Tomba admitted to Reuters that the shooting that killed five officers and left seven more injured has prompted a reexamination of protocol.

“We have got to make some changes without a doubt,” he told Reuters Friday, the morning after the shooting.

The stakes for securing the convention were already high with a historic mix of anti-establishment fervor, mobilizing protests both for and against controversial presumptive GOP nominee Donald Trump, and a court ruling that forced organizers to reconsider security plans.

Audrey Scagnelli, a spokeswoman for the Republican National Committee’s Committee on Arrangements, told The Hill her committee, the Secret Service, the Cleveland Police and the FBI have been working for over a year with local and federal partners to keep the city safe come convention time and stressed that law enforcement continues to monitor threats in the days ahead of the event.

But protests are a near certainty, and tensions remain high not only due to violence at past political events this year, but also the tragic shooting in Dallas this week that left five officers dead.

In a Saturday interview with The Hill, RNC Chairman Reince Priebus said recent events have undoubtedly made everyone “a little uptight and concerned,” but expressed full confidence in the plan in place.

“We’ve done everything we can and beyond,” Priebus said.

“We will have the best of America there protecting the participants at the convention and they’re going to be protecting the protesters, too,” he added. “People are prepared in Cleveland. The Secret Service are prepared and the state of Ohio is prepared. I think this is going to be a great week.”

Thomas Lekan, a Cleveland-area security consultant, told The Hill on Friday that while officials may shift plans based on new information or intelligence stemmed from that attack, a “random” attack at a protest is much harder to anticipate than one at an event as meticulously planned as the convention.

“You can never know, it’s silly to say that could never happen,” he said.

“We have pretty much the top people in the country, the FBI and the Secret Service running it and all the police agencies involved so I think we’re probably way better prepared than Dallas.”

But while delegates contacted by The Hill share confidence, some aren’t swearing off the prospect of complications.

“It’s going to be different this year. I’m somewhat concerned generally that something could happen somewhere, but I am not personally concerned for my safety,” California’s Republican vice-chair Harmeet Dhillon said.

“I’m going to give Cleveland the benefit of the doubt, they are taking their obligation to protect seriously.”

As is typical for conventions, the Secret Service will lock down the area immediately encompassing the convention to control access to only those with credentials. Cleveland Police will manage a larger “event zone” in the surrounding area to allow traffic yet restrict what is allowed inside that area.

But there have been significant bumps in the road.

First, the Cleveland Cavaliers’ NBA championship push this year cut into the time the RNC has for exclusive access to Quicken Loans Arena, the basketball arena that will serve as the main convention site.

And in late June, a federal judge ruled that restrictions the city had put on protesters surrounding the convention site were over-burdensome. That forced city officials to reduce that “event zone” from a 3-mile radius to about a 1.7-mile radius, change the parade/protest route to increase visibility and extend the times available for protesting permits.

Still, city officials stressed that none of the changes would roil the safety plan.

That’s a different song than both the Cleveland Department of Public Safety and the Republican Committee on Arrangements sang in court testimony ahead of the decision.

Edward Eckhart Jr. with Public Safety wrote in testimony that changes could “severely compromise our efforts to provide security [and] emergency services.” And the Committee argued in a brief that changes could make it difficult to “protect the safety and security.”

A convention aide told The Hill the Republican Party is happy with the agreement and that its initial concerns came from the uncertainty about whether the decision would have a more significant impact on law enforcement’s ability to keep the area safe.

Security experts said they are not surprised by the party’s confidence in the security plan. The experts reasoned officials would not have approved of a new plan that would make security too difficult and were likely anticipating changes to the event zone as a result of the lawsuit.

Still, thousands of demonstrators both for and against the presumptive GOP nominee are expected to hold rallies during the convention. And violence has broken out at several Trump rallies in the past.

Since Ohio state law allows the open carry of firearms, guns will be allowed inside that event zone while still barred by the Secret Service in the more immediate perimeter.

While some Republican delegates say they’re happy to allow law-abiding gun owners to carry their guns, the presence of firearms could add to tensions among protesters.

Several groups both for and against Trump have applied for parade permits during the convention. The Stand Together Against Trump group was issued permits for two separate marches with up to 5,000 people, while Citizens for Trump has been approved for 5,000 people.

Bryan Hambley, one of the leaders of Stand Together Against Trump, said the group is looking to get a broad-based group of people to protest racism, sexism and Islamophobia exhibited by Trump, but its members are “absolutely committed to nonviolent action.”

Other groups have openly flouted the permit requirements, including The Coalition to Stop Trump and March on the RNC, which is appealing a decision by the city denying its protest permit for the same day as Citizens for Trump.

Mick Kelly, a spokesman for the coalition, said in a statement that the group is “prepared to rally and march without” permits.

“We have no intention of wandering around unheard and unseen on the bridge to nowhere,” he added.

White nationalist groups involved in a California protest last month where five people were stabbed also plan to be on hand to defend Trump supporters from “leftist thugs,” according to a report by McClatchy.

Pat Brady, a delegate from Illinois supporting former presidential candidate Ohio Gov. John Kasich, noted though he’s not concerned because of his full confidence in the RNC, “you can’t bury your head in the sand.”

“We saw a Trump supporter sucker-punch an African-American guy and that’s a bad image,” he said, noting violence on both sides.

Security experts downplayed the potential for protests getting out of hand, noting there are always concerns at presidential conventions — whether they be about potential reaction to Barack Obama becoming the first black major party presidential nominee or about a polarizing candidate such as Trump.

And they pointed to Cleveland’s ability to manage an estimated 1.3 million people for last month’s Cavaliers NBA Championship parade — far more than the 50,000 estimated for the convention — as a further reason to feel confident.

“You’re totally going to be in the safest place on Earth if you’re in Cleveland during the convention,” Lekan, the Cleveland security expert, said.

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About the Author

Rebecca is a social services reporter at The Frederick News-Post. She graduated from Northwestern University, where she studied journalism and political science. She served as Managing Editor, Summer Editor-In-Chief and Campus Editor at The Daily Northwestern and previously interned at The Miami Herald.