The 2016 Republican National Convention was the largest and most politically charged event in Cleveland’s recent history. The city had hosted the convention twice before, but the last time had been 80 years previously. Cleveland’s current approach to civil disturbance is largely informed by the strategy we took leading up to and during the convention.
At the Cleveland Division of Police, planning for a large-scale event has four key components. First, we learn as much as we can from other police departments across the country that have hosted similar events. Second, we coordinate intelligence collection to ensure we have current and comprehensive information leading up to and throughout an event. Third, we work to accommodate demonstrators to the greatest possible extent, although we never tolerate physical violence or property damage. Finally, we make sure to keep our civil disturbance policies up to date, to make sure our policies are relevant to the current climate, informed by research, and in line with best practices for civil disturbance response.
Learning From Other Police Departments
We learned that Cleveland would be hosting the 2016 Republican National Convention about a year and a half before the event. The first thing we did was reach out to Tampa, St. Paul, Charlotte, Boston, and other cities that had recently held similar large political convenings. We had a lot of conference calls and in-person meetings with other departments to discuss the upcoming convention, what had worked well when they hosted similar events, and what they would do differently if they hosted again. For example, Charlotte, NC, highly recommended utilizing bicycles. On their advice, we purchased 300 bicycles and deployed bike patrols throughout the convention. We found this to be one of the most effective tools for managing mobile protests, with bicycles doubling as rolling barricades.
There was as much to be learned from what departments recommended against as what they suggested as good practice. During a recent Republican National Convention in another city, the police department had arrested hundreds of demonstrators in a city park. Although justified in the eyes of the law, this had led to a public relations nightmare and overextended the city’s court system. Reflecting on that experience, the department strongly recommended against this adversarial approach.
Our many conversations with various jurisdictions allowed us to draw from the lessons learned by other police departments, and were helpful as we considered options for our preparation and response. Through these conversations, we generated a preliminary list of things that strengthened both security plans and the protection of constitutional rights for all demonstrators. We then worked to customize that list for Cleveland and improve upon it for the approaching convention.
The Value of Intelligence
Information was one of the most valuable tools we had as we prepared for the convention. Through “fusion centers” to coordinate response, we partnered with every intelligence-gathering agency we could at national, state, and local levels: the FBI, state patrol, homeland security, the county sheriff’s office, regional hotel organizations, and our local city departments and offices. Through this extensive intelligence coordination, we were able to put mechanisms in place to receive information, vet that information for authenticity, and alter our strategies or redeploy based on that intelligence.
This interagency intelligence coordination particularly helped us as we responded to a series of Second Amendment protests near the convention, during which protesters carried assault-type weapons and long rifles. Ohio is an open and concealed carry state, and demonstrators are within their rights to carry these weapons. However, it led to a tense situation with the potential to escalate quickly. Based on intelligence updates, we deployed counter-assault teams to shadow individuals carrying weapons, which allayed fears and showed the public they were well protected.
We had formulated a plan leading up to the event, but it was real-time intelligence that helped us respond to these Second Amendment protests and ensure that the police kept everyone involved safe.
Over the course of the convention, we had a number of other tense or violent incidents that had the potential to escalate further or spiral out of control. Our coordinated intelligence collection, as well as a strong on-the-ground presence that included command-level officers, helped us understand the status of these events and deploy quickly to deescalate a situation.
An Accommodating Approach
Demonstrators have a constitutional right to protest, but they don’t have a constitutional right to block traffic on a city street. In Cleveland, we work hard to accommodate demonstrators to the greatest extent possible. That includes allowing them to block city streets even if they do not have a permit to do so. In my view, a street is a street, and most major cities have hundreds of streets. I believe diverting traffic around a demonstration is far preferable to a large-scale arrest or use-of-force deployment to disperse an illegal protest. Similarly, if protesters illegally block a hotel entrance, we do everything we can to divert foot traffic to a back door or a second entrance.
During the 2016 convention, the police created designated demonstration areas, and groups registered for certain times to protest. This was initially successful, but over time protesters began moving to other locations, including the public square, which is a hub of city traffic and public transportation. It would have been within reason to arrest protesters for blocking these streets. Instead, we diverted traffic to minimize disruption.
We had a similar incident in 2014 with a group of demonstrators blocking a major Cleveland traffic artery. We received intelligence before the demonstration that protesters were planning to block the roadway. Rather than arresting the demonstrators to reopen the roadway, we diverted traffic off the interstate to prevent gridlock and facilitated their safe expression of First Amendment rights. This accommodation inconvenienced the motorists we diverted, but prevented a confrontational incident that could have become a community relations nightmare. I strongly encourage chiefs to accommodate demonstrators to the largest extent possible before beginning a confrontational approach.
Our line in the sand, of course, is any incident of violence or property destruction. During all demonstrations, we keep a visible on-the-ground presence, so we can immediately respond to any incident that begins to escalate. We are very clear with demonstrators that we have a zero-tolerance policy for violence, and that if a protest escalates to property destruction or physical violence, we will disperse it.
Keeping With the Times
The final element of our civil disturbance work has been making sure we keep our civil disturbance policies up to date. In Cleveland prior to the convention, we realized that our civil disturbance response was guided by three disparate policies that hadn’t been reviewed in more than 15 years. As we prepared for the convention, we merged these policies into one comprehensive policy that was consistent with research on best practices and court decisions since the original policies had been written. Our civil disturbance policy now includes sections on intelligence gathering, arrests, coordinating with the courts, and other issues. We implemented a 36-hour charging rule in the county, to make sure we weren’t detaining individuals for unreasonable periods of time or charging individuals unnecessarily. We had the Department of Justice review our merged policy before we finalized it, to make sure it kept with research and best practices.
Like many police agencies, Cleveland has a long history of successfully facilitating the expression of First Amendment rights. The 2016 convention taught us invaluable lessons about preparing and responding to large-scale incidents of civil disturbance. During the convention and in our civil disturbance response since, this has meant learning from other jurisdictions before an event, coordinating intelligence collection, accommodating demonstrators to the greatest extent possible, and keeping our policies up to date. All of our policies and efforts around civil disturbance response aim to facilitate the full expression of First Amendment freedoms while ensuring safety for all.
About “Notes From the Field”
The National Institute of Justice (NIJ) is the research, development, and evaluation arm of the U.S. Department of Justice. NIJ aims to address the critical questions of the criminal justice field, particularly at the state and local levels.
NIJ Director David Muhlhausen developed the “Notes From the Field” series to allow leading voices in the field to share their strategies for responding to the most pressing issues on America’s streets today.
“Notes From the Field” is nota research-based publication. Instead, it presents lessons learned by law enforcement executives and other on-the-ground leaders, from years of experience and thinking deeply about law enforcement issues.
About the Author
Calvin D. Williams is the City of Cleveland’s 40th Chief of Police. Chief Williams was appointed to the Division of Police on February 24, 1986. In 1989, he was assigned to the SWAT Unit where he served for nine years. Williams was promoted to Sergeant in July 1997 and became the SWAT Unit Supervisor, a position he held for two years. Chief Williams has also served as the supervisor of both the Vice Unit in the Fourth District and the Fugitive Unit.
In 2005, Chief Williams became the Cleveland Police Liaison to the U.S. Marshal’s Fugitive Task Force and was promoted to Commander of the Third District in March of 2006. In September 2011, he was promoted to Deputy Chief of Field Operations where he was responsible for the oversight, management, and efficiency of the five Neighborhood Police Districts, the Bureau of Community Policing, the Bureau of Traffic, and the Office of Special Events for the Division.
Writing and editorial support was provided by Rianna P. Starheim, a writer with a federal contractor, on assignment at the National Institute of Justice, U.S. Department of Justice.