Police: 'We are absolutely ready' to secure safety of DNC

Philadelphia Police Commissioner Richard Ross (right) thanks Bruce Eichbauer, 68, Nashville, Tenn., who complimented him for the way the Philadelphia police officers were treating the Bernie Sanders supporters as they marched down Broad Street to FDR Park.

The party is here - and so are the people charged with protecting it.

Thousands of law enforcement officials from at least 50 federal, state, and local agencies are expected to descend upon Philadelphia to secure this week's Democratic National Convention, as well as the dozens of protests associated with it.

"We are absolutely ready," said Philadelphia Police Commissioner Richard Ross.

"We always say success is never final," said Secret Service Director Joseph Clancy. "That doesn't mean we're not dialed in and focused."

Neither would disclose specific plans for how their agencies will secure the Wells Fargo Center and surrounding area for the convention, FDR Park for protests, or the various demonstrations expected to take place from City Hall to Independence Mall and down Broad Street.

But current and former security officials say the playbook for nearly every imaginable scenario is written, and at a news briefing Sunday, Mayor Kenney said he was looking forward to the events to come.

"It's very exciting to see what is going to happen in Philadelphia," he said.

Like Pope Francis' visit to the United States last September, the DNC has been designated a National Special Security Event by the Department of Homeland Security. Clancy said the Secret Service will use the security template developed in 1998 to secure past conventions, presidential inaugurations, meetings with foreign heads of state. The plan is tailored to fit each event, Clancy said, but "the consistent thing is the model," which calls for nearly two dozen subcommittees to examine different aspects of the event, from medical issues, to transportation, to how to handle civil disobedience.

In Philadelphia, said Clancy, the Secret Service had to account for several unique factors. Delegates will largely be bused from Center City hotels, requiring them to go through magnetometers before boarding, and for the buses to be swept for explosives. Bordering the Wells Fargo Center is I-95, a major highway that the agency must secure (weight limits will prevent large trucks from driving by). The Delaware River is nearby, another area to monitor. And there are thousands of people who work at the neighboring Navy Yard.

The venue is also much different from the Republican convention in Cleveland, Clancy said, where much of the convention activities took place downtown. Around the stadiums in South Philadelphia, the agency has "much more room to work with," he said.

While planners have paid attention to recent attacks in Orlando; Dallas; Nice, France; and elsewhere, Clancy said, the blueprint already has steps mapped out for handling - and trying to prevent - a variety of potential threats.

"We shouldn't be in a position where we have to react to world events," he said. "Our plan should be followed enough where we're already prepared."

Ross, for his part, said the recent shooting deaths of police in such cities as Dallas and Baton Rouge, La., forced authorities to modify their plans somewhat, though he declined to say how.

Beyond the security of his own officers, the commissioner will also be monitoring how police balance safety with the rights of thousands of protesters expected to flood city streets. Conventions have historically resulted in wrongful-arrest lawsuits, including in Philadelphia in 2000.

Police in Philadelphia have said they will not use tear gas or other clouds of chemical irritants for crowd control. The city also decriminalized a number of nuisance crimes associated with protests, something Kenney said was done to reduce the number of people who might face penalties for demonstrating.

"Our goal is not to arrest anybody," Kenney said Sunday.

In Cleveland last week, demonstrations were mostly mild, despite expectations of potential tumult. The number of protesters was also much lower than expected, though officials here said it was difficult to predict what turnout might be.

Robert Hagemann, city attorney in Charlotte, N.C., host of the Democratic National Convention in 2012, said that despite concerns in the lead-up to that event, only 25 people were arrested.

Times were different, he acknowledges, but Charlotte had some similar situations to Philadelphia's: a ban on camping, for example, and the intelligence that about 100 people planned to stay overnight in a city park.

"Even though it was clearly in violation of an ordinance, our police chief persuaded management that from a public safety standpoint, and a managing demonstrations and protests standpoint, the best course was not to try and run them out of the park, and we didn't," Hagemann said.

Hagemann partially credits that move for Charlotte's low arrest count and the complete lack of lawsuits the city faced.

Philadelphia officials have said the no-camping ordinance remains on the books, though some demonstrators have said they plan to stay overnight in FDR Park. City spokeswoman Lauren Hitt has said those people will "respectfully be asked to leave." Ross declined to say Sunday how police would handle campers, saying that police would evaluate situations on a case-by-case basis.

In a heat advisory sent out Saturday, the city reinforced the ban for health reasons.

"The city is not granting permits for camping during the DNC and demonstrators are highly encouraged not to camp in light of the safety threats by extreme heat and expected thunderstorms," the advisory read.

Kenney also said the heat was a concern for protesting. Medics will be assigned to follow marches, he said, while pallets of bottled water will be available to protesters, and fire hydrants along Broad Street will be given sprinkler caps.

Brian Jenkins, a security expert at the RAND Corp. who has worked as a consultant on past Olympic Games, said the issue with protests is that one person intent on causing a disruption can escalate an otherwise calm situation.

As for terror threats, Jenkins said that despite recent world events, the country's counterintelligence work is remarkably accurate.

"Security planners are always, in a sense, preparing despite the fact that the world situation seems especially tumultuous right now," he said.

Still, Ross said that there had been no credible threats made against the DNC, but that officials were prepared for everything - and believed they were ready to handle it.

"We've got a comprehensive plan," he said.

cpalmer@phillynews.com

215-854-2817

@cs_palmer

Staff writer Sam Wood contributed to this article.