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Tanks, SWAT Teams, Surveillance Helicopters: Cities Already Turning Into Mini-Police States for the Political Conventions

With millions in federal grants, local officials are preparing to crack down on dissent.
 
 
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Two cities have their hands full preparing for the upcoming Republican and Democratic National Conventions later this year. As officials in Tampa, Florida, make plans to manage an estimated 15,000 protesters expected to descend on the city during the four-day Republican gathering in August, their counterparts in Charlotte, North Carolina, are ramping up crowd-control training in the run-up to the DNC.

With the parties gathering just seven months from now, Tampa and Charlotte will spend the next half-year transforming their cities into mini-police states to manage the thousands of protesters who will carry on a long tradition of dissent at the major parties' nominating conventions.

Tampa Gears Up for RNC With Tanks and Digital Surveillance Helicopters

Last week, the Tampa City Council voted on how to spend some of the $50 million federal grant to secure Tampa for the 2012 RNC. The grant is paying for what the Tampa Bay Times describes as “the first in a series of police upgrades” that will include an armored SWAT truck and a high-tech communication system.

Security planning has been underway as far back as May 2011, just two months after the RNC announced the location of the convention.

The city council agreed to spend nearly $237,000 on a Lenco BearCat armored vehicle, which will be used in conjunction with two aging armored vehicles the city acquired through the military surplus program. Tampa Assistant Police Chief Marc Hamlin told the Tampa Bay Times that the trucks are strictly for the purpose of protecting officers from potential gunfire, not for day-to-day patrolling and crowd control.

Although the vote was unanimous, City Council Vice Chairwoman Mary Mulhern expressed alarm about the purchase. Mulhern told AlterNet, “I didn't even know that our police force had a tank and Hamlin made a convincing argument that it’s been used to save a life. I would’ve voted no if we didn’t already have one -- it’s chilling that the police have a tank.” She fears these types of purchases could “militarize” Tampa’s police force.

Despite Mulhern’s respect for the Tampa Police Department, she expressed concern about the potential use of this new equipment against future peaceful protests. “I think the police department is using Occupy as training ground for the convention,” she told AlterNet, noting that the local occupiers had posted a photo of an armored vehicle police had displayed at the Occupy Tampa site.

Tampa’s fleet of armored vehicles will be joined by a dozen others borrowed from neighboring departments.

City officials plan to deploy anywhere between 3,000 to 4,000 officers to establish a “security corridor” around the RNC. Since the Tampa police and Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office have only 2,100 officers combined, up to two-thirds of the federal grant will pay, feed and house thousands of officers from surrounding jurisdictions.

Another $1.18 million is going toward new digital video communication technology that will allow police helicopters to transmit video to cops on the ground equipped with handheld receivers. Various news outlets report that an additional $2 million was requested to ramp up surveillance with the installation of 60 surveillance cameras in downtown Tampa, far more than the five traffic cameras the city currently has. Mulhern tells AlterNet the council has yet to vote on that request. She fears that if the cameras are installed, they would remain after the convention is over.

Tampa authorities initially requested 238 new cameras. In October, Richard Danielson reported in the St. Petersburg Times that the city’s list of desired toys for the convention included 164 high-resolution traffic cameras mounted to light posts; two aerial surveillance drones; “20 helmet cameras with 2 1/2 hours of recording time to document crowd disturbances”; “Six trailer-mounted mobile cameras on booms that rise 20 feet or more, six more breadbox-sized cameras for covert use around high-risk activities, and four cameras that could read license tags in six lanes of traffic at speeds of 100 mph.” Less than a week later the list was revised and the drone request dropped, not because of constitutional concerns about privacy but rather due to the high price tag.

 
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