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A new standard for law enforcement: It’s just how things are done here

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image Major Ron Hartley, commander of the HCSO District IV office in Ruskin played a role in the success. Mitch Traphagen Photo

“People have a First Amendment right to protest peacefully and within the lines of the law...”

By Mitch Traphagen

During the 2004 Republican National Convention in New York, more than 1,800 people were arrested, including a 15-year-old diabetic girl on her way to see a movie and a vice president with Morgan Stanley out riding her bicycle. In St. Paul, Minnesota, during the Republican National Convention in 2008, there were 800 arrests. Four years later, the RNC came to downtown Tampa. According to Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office Major Ron Hartley, on a normal day there could be as many as 15 or 20 arrests. During the entire run of the RNC in the city, there were two arrests.

It is possible that a new standard for law enforcement involving large-scale events emerged during the 2012 RNC. If so, the HCSO has a great deal to do with that. And that is simply how they’ve always done business.

Maj. Hartley, the commander of the HCSO District IV office in Ruskin, was a sector commander downtown during the RNC. Approximately 600 law enforcement officers with disparate backgrounds reported to him, including officers from the HCSO, Sarasota County and the Sarasota Police Department, Clearwater, Collier County, the Florida Highway Patrol and other agencies. The chain of command was strict and discipline was tight. But most of all, the law enforcement officers went into the event with an overwhelming presence and a specific attitude. They wanted to avoid the problems of past conventions. They succeeded.

“People have a First Amendment right to protest peacefully and within the lines of the law,” Hartley said. “We are well aware of that and we are going to give them every opportunity they want to champion whatever cause it is they believe in.”

It worked. Some demonstrators even left Tampa after the RNC with praise for the law enforcement officers.

“Sheriff Gee let us know we are not there for confrontation unless they start breaking the law, hurting people or things like that,” Harley continued. “We needed law and order, but we didn’t go in there looking for a fight. No doubt we’d win, but why do it if you don’t have to?”

In the end, they never had to.

“I guess some departments draw a line in the sand,” Hartley said. “The question then becomes where are you going to draw the line? We could have decided that no demonstrators were going to go south of Kennedy Boulevard. The question then becomes ‘Why?’ That diffuses the thing right there. Go ahead and protest all you want, just don’t break any windows. In the end, they got what they wanted. They were given a stage, they were given a platform, but we weren’t going to let them overturn cars or break windows. I don’t care who you are, we aren’t going to let you do that.”

Law enforcement officers took it a step further, however. Barring any hint of violence, they gave demonstrators the same respect they gave to the visitors and delegates. When one man in a large costume overheated during a protest march, officers took him to a cooling station. When word got out that food was running short at the main camp for demonstrators, officers brought sandwiches and cold water.

“At TECO, one guy climbed up on a phosphate truck,” Hartley related. “We told him that he had made his point, now it was time to leave. We told him, the truck driver is just a guy trying to make a living. He decided that his cause wasn’t so great that he was willing to hurt innocent people, and the only person he was hurting was the poor guy with the truck.”

The assembled protestors, however, had to walk back to their bus. Rather than having them march down the middle of the road, officers reasoned with them. They told them that people were leaving work, they were tired and just wanted to get home. So rather than marching down the middle of the road, it would be best if they carried their signs and banners along the side of the road.

According to Hartley, the demonstrators were agreeable with that. “They said, ‘OK, that’s cool.’”

What Major Hartley and other officers were not worried so much about people coming to the city to exercise their First Amendment rights, they were worried about those with an agenda to cause serious problems.

“The anarchy groups,” he said. “Some of them are domestic terrorists. But they work much better in big groups, three, four, five thousand people. They didn’t have that here.”

The HCSO is one of the largest law enforcement agencies in the nation, but it operates with one of the lowest officer to citizen ratios in the state of Florida. Despite that, the agency has not only successfully kept a lid on crime, but it also reduced crime in a down economy with budget challenges and a rapidly growing population. The agency has long held a community-centered focus and has worked to ensure that officers respect all of the people they are chartered to protect and serve.

“I have been blessed because I have worked for four different sheriffs and every one of them has been exceptional in their own way,” Hartley said. “Sheriff Gee is a great man. He is a true gentleman. He has compassion for people and he is going to do the right thing. Even if it is not the popular thing, he will do the right thing.”

In the case of the 2012 RNC, that meant creating an enormous police presence without becoming a police state. Demonstrators were free to exercise their rights within the bounds of the law, and law enforcement officers were there to protect the protesters as along with everyone else.

“My thing was to let them protest, and if there is a minimal inconvenience to the other citizens, when they decided they wanted to block traffic, we simply re-routed traffic,” Hartley said. “The Sheriff [made clear] that there would not be lawlessness, but we weren’t going to go after people like that. We weren’t going to arrest people for causing a few minutes of inconvenience on a street corner. The Sheriff was looking out for all of the citizens.”

Despite the lack of problems, Hartley is glad the RNC is over.

“The whole thing was really anti-climactic, and that is exactly what we wanted,” he concluded. “The hardcore demonstrators had no infrastructure, there’s no radical underground movement here. Most people have to work here. And it rained, and it was hot, and there was an overwhelming police presence. Not only that, but the police officers were nice to them.”

The 2004 RNC in New York set a record for the most arrests. Tampa in 2012 has set a new standard with a mere two arrests. After almost everyone was expecting the worst, a little kindness and a lot of professionalism from law enforcement went a long way. That was no surprise to Major Hartley. It’s just how he does business.

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