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Cleveland officials take a victory lap as Republican convention comes to a calm close

RNC protest
Protesters from the Stand Together Against Trump March walk within shouting distance of the Quicken Loans arena during the 2016 Republican National Convention in Cleveland.
(Marcus Yam / Los Angeles Times)

Every time Cleveland Police Chief Calvin Williams was asked this week about the calmer-than-expected protests outside of the Republican National Convention, he responded with a muted, steady-as-she-goes response.

On Friday, the city’s top cop finally exhaled.

“Good morning … Cleveland rocks!” he said to reporters.

After weeks of concern that protests outside the convention would turn dangerous in the midst of a vitriolic campaign season, culminating in the nomination Thursday of Donald Trump, and increased tensions over violence abroad and at home, Cleveland leaders took a victory lap after their public safety success story, completing the week with few arrests or reports of violence.

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“We planned for this for a year and a half,” Williams said. “We worked it up and down for a year and a half.”

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During five days of mostly tame demonstrations, police made just 23 arrests, surprisingly few compared with conventions in recent years in New York, Minnesota and Florida, all where arrest totals numbered in the hundreds. Aside from a fracas Wednesday over a group’s attempt to burn a U.S. flag, the drama in Cleveland this week was confined to the convention hall itself.

Many credited an overwhelming police presence of more than 3,000 officers from around the country and the department’s use of bicycles to create mobile blockades with keeping tense protests from growing violent. The city also seemed to take a hands-off approach to marchers who took to downtown’s streets without permits. Officers declared unlawful assemblies just twice, even backing off when protesters attempted to run around, or at times through, one of the department’s bicycle blockades.

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“Most of that activity, we knew, would not be at the designated parade route,” Mayor Frank Jackson said, referring to the area zoned for protests, a  path many activists called a “bridge to nowhere” as it routed demonstrators far from the convention site. 

“We knew that they would go in the street when they didn’t have a permit, and we knew that we would allow them to do it,” Jackson said. 

The successful week could also serve to help heal the image of a police department that became part of the divisive national conversation on law enforcement and race after the shooting death of 12-year-old Tamir Rice in 2014 and a federal report that found officers routinely misused force against black residents. Williams said he hoped a week that largely saw people posing for pictures with officers rather than fighting with them will underscore an improved relationship between city officers and the people they police.

“People kind of pigeonhole the city of Cleveland with things that happen around the country,” he said. “I think people underestimate the support people have for this division of police.”

Civil rights advocates were less enthusiastic about the department’s long-term gains. The agency performed well during the week but also benefited from the underwhelming number of protesters who traveled to Cleveland, said Christine Link, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union in Ohio.

“There were three police and two photojournalists for every protester,” Link said.

She also warned that the department’s ability to handle out-of-town protests while under the watchful lens of a ubiquitous media presence said little about its ability to interact with residents.

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“It remains to be seen. I don’t think that this is an all new Cleveland Police Department,” she said, adding that the city’s powerful police union has still been largely resistant to reforms outlined in a 2014 federal consent decree.

“The posture of the union leadership … is still hostile to the consent decree [and] often uncooperative,” she said. “So this, to me, is a one-off.”

Whatever the long-term effects, the friendly vibe between cops and citizens was still present in downtown Cleveland on Friday. As vendors packed political memorabilia into box trucks and others enjoyed the newfound space to breathe in the absence of police marching the pavement, 23-year-old Cleveland resident D.J. Matthews nodded his head in approval when asked about the chaotic week that wasn’t.

“They did good. They did their job and there wasn’t that much drama,” he said, pausing to wave to an officer riding past on a bicycle. “Y’all did good. Y’all did real good.” 

james.queally@latimes.com

Follow @JamesQueallyLAT for crime and police news in California.

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