WASHINGTON — Cleveland is preparing to host the Republican National Convention during one of the most tumultuous presidential elections in decades, amid concerns from its police union that the city is not moving fast enough to secure riot gear, train personnel, and ensure there will be enough officers on the streets.
Tensions are escalating as Donald Trump, the leading GOP candidate, warns of “riots” if he is denied the nomination at the July convention. Some city officials and law enforcement officers are accusing Trump of fueling discontent and inciting violence with his rhetoric.
Cleveland officials and the Secret Service, without elaborating on security details, insist they will be prepared in time. The city is scrambling to build and equip a security force that police specialists said could number 4,000 to 5,000 officers, roughly the standard for US presidential nominating conventions.
The city has yet to order the necessary riot-control gear, having only recently put the security equipment out to bid. On the list of orders to go out after March 30: 2,000 sets of riot-control “turtle suits’’ that include upper body and shoulder protection, shin guards, elbow and forearm protection, tactical hard-knuckle gloves, and 26-inch collapsible batons.
The equipment is expected to be in hand by June 1 — a month and a half before the convention.
But Cleveland’s police officers union says the city is moving too slowly, and that even if the riot gear arrives by June as planned, officers will not have sufficient time to train with the new equipment before the convention starts July 18.
“We’re underprepared right now for this,” said Stephen Loomis, president of the Cleveland Police Patrolmen’s Association. “We are way behind the eight ball. The city has a responsibility to make us as safe as possible. Right now, they are not living up to that.”
Cleveland also is ordering 16 police motorcycles, 300 patrol bicycles, 310 sets of bicycle riot control gear, and three horse trailers — as well as 500 interlocking steel barriers that are 6½ feet high and 2,000 shorter steel barriers, according to city bid specifications.
“We don’t even have a bicycle unit, and now all of a sudden we’re going to have 300 bikes and no training,” Loomis said.
Cleveland Police Chief Calvin Williams did not respond to interview requests. The department spokeswoman referred all questions to the city, which declined to comment.
The security equipment is being paid for by a $50 million federal security grant to the city to host the convention. A significant portion of the money will cover personnel costs; the city is also obtaining an insurance rider to cover police liability and property damage downtown if there are civil disturbances, according to the Cleveland City Council.
Former Charlotte-Mecklenburg police chief Rodney Monroe, who oversaw security during the 2012 Democratic National Convention in North Carolina and has spoken with the Cleveland organizers, said the Cleveland police union’s concerns about timing are valid.
“Good luck with that one,” Monroe said, referring to Cleveland’s planned arrival for the tactical gear. “In most cases, there was a three-month lag time for ordering. We had to get that in early.”
Charlotte ordered its protective equipment eight to nine months before the convention, and even so, Monroe was so concerned about having shields, helmets, and other gear delivered in time for training that “we were going right up to the docks and picking up the equipment as they were coming off the boats.”
“All of our officers were issued their equipment three months prior to the convention,” Monroe said. “It’s important to get out in front.’’
Meanwhile, it’s unclear if Cleveland will get enough help from out-of-state departments to create the huge security force that is needed. A spokesman for the Chicago police said the department — itself roiled because of a police involved shooting and a rash of homicides — is thinking about pulling out of the convention but has not “officially said no yet.”
The spokesman said Chicago police are in talks with Cleveland officials on how to get around an Ohio state law that prohibits far-flung jurisdictions from using police powers within the city.
Dan Williams, spokesman for the City of Cleveland, would not respond to security-related questions, including those about the police union’s concerns on equipment delays, size of police presence, and training.
“We do not discuss training, tactics, staffing, or deployment,” Williams said, referring all security inquiries to the Secret Service.
The city and its police force have been coordinating with the Secret Service on security preparations with plans to step up law enforcement presence to handle the large number of expected protesters.
Kevin Dye, Secret Service spokesman, said the agency will not discuss security methods or means. “We will be prepared,” he said.
Monroe and others who have overseen security for previous political conventions said Cleveland should prepare for a total force of between 4,000 and 5,000 officers, including city and state police as well as outside agencies.
Loomis, the police union official, said thus far, only 1,800 officers, including Cleveland police and those outside the city, have been committed, a number neither the city nor Secret Service would confirm.
Four years ago, Charlotte had to seek assistance from an additional 2,200 to 2,500 officers, most of whom came from out of state, Monroe said. He began securing commitments of support five months in advance and persuaded the North Carolina Legislature to pass a temporary law giving his department the ability to swear in officers from other jurisdictions so they would have the same authority as Charlotte police.
Cleveland City Councilor Matt Zone, who chairs the safety committee, said the city will be prepared to handle any violence.
Trump’s rallies have attracted an increasing number of protesters, and on March 11 he canceled a Chicago gathering over fears of violence between his supporters and those protesting against him.
Soon after, Trump appeared on national television warning of bedlam in Cleveland if he amasses the most delegates and is still denied the nomination in a contested convention.
“I think you’d have riots,” Trump said on CNN. “I’m representing a tremendous — many, many millions of people.”
He said if his supporters feel disenfranchised, “I think you would have problems like you’ve never seen before. I think bad things would happen. . . . I wouldn’t lead it, but I think bad things would happen.”
Zone, the Cleveland city councilor, called Trump’s comments “totally irresponsible.”
“We’ll be ready for whatever comes our way, but it certainly doesn’t make it any better when you have this individual spewing hatred,” said Zone, who is a Democrat. “When you tell your supporters to punch protesters in the face and promise to pay their legal fees, people act on that. Words matter. What he’s doing is creating a self-fulfilling prophecy.”
Trump has previously dismissed criticisms that he is fueling violence. He’s called himself just a “messenger” for the anger felt by many Americans and said his supporters are simply defending themselves against “mean” and “bad” protesters.
“Some of these protesters are bad dudes,” said Trump in a recent Fox News interview, adding that he does not condone violence. “They swing and they punch.”
Former Boston police commissioner Ed Davis said law enforcement agencies should request that candidates tone down their rhetoric and conduct their campaigns responsibly in the name of public safety.
“I shiver when I hear a principle, a candidate of that stature, speaking in those terms because that rhetoric is potentially inciting incidents,’’ Davis said.
When Boston hosted the Democratic National Convention in 2004, during which then-Senator John Kerry was selected as the nominee, security was on high alert because it was the first convention held after the 9/11 terror attacks.
Traffic on I-93 was shut down during convention hours because the highway ran close to the FleetCenter (now TD Garden), where the convention was held. No vehicles larger than an SUV were allowed on the highway to limit the amount of explosives that could potentially damage the arena.
Private planes were banned from flying into Logan Airport. And protesters were penned into an area enclosed by a double chain-link fence and razor wire that they compared to an internment camp.
“There is a whole different threat level now, and the Cleveland police are going to have their hands full,” said Davis, who was involved in the Boston security preparations. “This is a different time. We’re in a very different mentality in this country, and the potential for violence is high.”
Davis said Cleveland police should be building up their training now in crowd control and making sure everyone maintains discipline in special units called “public order platoons.”
During the Cleveland convention, delegates and other attendees should expect to pass through metal detectors and double fencing. Traffic near the arena will be limited, and cars will be checked by bomb-searching dogs.
Unlike in other conventions that had designated “free speech zones” for protesters, city officials said Cleveland would allow protests to occur anywhere outside the secured area.
Just before the 2000 Democratic convention in Los Angeles, a federal judge ordered that organizers move the “free speech zone” closer to the Staples Center. Demonstrators grew unruly, prompting police to fire rubber bullets and forcibly disperse the crowd.
But the 1968 Democratic convention in Chicago eclipses all others in terms of violence as thousands of Vietnam War protesters descended upon the city, riots broke out, and the National Guard and Army troops were mobilized. Chicago police reported 589 arrests and 219 injuries, nearly evenly split between protesters and police.