TAMPA — Last August, the thousands of protesters who converged on Tampa for the Republican National Convention were met by hundreds of law enforcement officers armed with the best crowd control and security equipment a $50 million federal grant could buy.
The plan worked. The 2012 Republican convention will probably best be remembered for the tropical storm that delayed events by a day rather than for protests run amok.
A year later, police say, the same equipment that helped keep order at the convention is still helping make the area safer.
“Everything that we purchased we are putting to good use,’ said Tampa police Chief Jane Castor. “Not only is it benefitting law enforcement, but the citizens of Tampa Bay for years to come.”
The federal grant was given specifically for the host city to prepare for the convention. Some of the money was used to house and feed out-of-the-area police officers brought in for extra manpower, but millions went for equipment.
Among the items on the list: an armored SWAT truck, body armor and protective gear, four-wheeled utility vehicles, police bicycles, a closed-circuit surveillance system that included stationary and mobile cameras, walkie-talkies and two-way radios.
Last year, a camera installed at a city parking garage helped police arrest a suspect in an attempted sexual battery, Castor said. She said the five mobile trailers each fitted with three cameras have been a big benefit for a city that hosts hundreds of events a year.
At one of the last Gasparilla events, an officer monitoring the mobile camera saw someone put down a backpack and walked away. Officers were rushed to the scene. The backpack was found not to be a threat - it was reunited with the person who forgot it - but in an era of heightenened security over bomb threats, such equipment is invaluable, Castor said.
When not in use in Tampa, the mobile trailers and their cameras have been loaned to help police security at events such as the Grand Prix of St. Petersburg.
The police chief said the department is also using most of the rest of the RNC-related equipment.
The $273,000 armored SWAT truck helps the agency’s SWAT team apprehend barricaded suspects, she said, and the 200 Kona police bicycles, which cost a total of $150,730, proved to be one of the most effective tools in keeping order during the RNC. When protestors marched, officers got off the bicycles and used them as barriers to make sure protestors stayed on approved routes.
Today, the bicycles let Tampa police officers to engage in community policing. They also allowed the agency to start a daily downtown bicycle patrol that involves two to four officers covering the area from late morning to early evening, Castor said.
Tampa police weren’t the only ones to benefit from the shopping spree. The department gave some of the bicycles, body armor and protective gear purchased for the convention to other agencies.
The Pasco County Sheriff’s Office received 50 suits of protective gear and body armor. The Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office received about 1,800 walkie-talkies and two-way radios worth $6 million.
The sheriff’s office received four Bobcat four-wheel drive utility vehicles, which it uses for security and rescue response at the port and on the perimeter of the Tampa Executive Airport in eastern Hillsborough County.
The sheriff’s office got two T3Motion electric standup vehicles that are now used to secure buildings in downtown Tampa from the Hillsborough County Center to the George E. Edgecomb Courthouse, said sheriff’s Col. Jim Previtera. They also got two Segways used for security at local parades, festivals and events at Raymond James Stadium, he said.
The sheriff’s office received 51 bicycles from Tampa police, which has helped in patrolling, Previtera said.
“You’re much more effective in a bicycle,” Previtera said. “You hear more; you see more.”
The sheriff’s office got a mobile amplifier sound system that was used to make announcements to a crowd or that could make a penetrating noise designed to disperse a crowd. The system has been used for training, Previtera said.
“These weren’t gifts we got and put away,” Previtera said. “These are gifts that we use. We’ve used those in a manner that have bolstered public safety.”
Castor called the experience of hosting the convention a benefit for the area’s law enforcement officers. In the past, the local, state and federal agencies have worked well together, but the RNC experience solidified the relationships even more, she said.
“There are very few things that could occur that we wouldn’t be prepared for,” Castor said.