Federal, local law enforcement ready Charlotte for Democratic convention

Hundreds of federal and local law enforcement officials are prepared to face thousands of demonstrators this week as Democrats descend on Charlotte, N.C., to nominate President Obama and critics ready their voices for the city streets.  

More than 40 groups representing a wide swath of causes — from Occupy movements to marijuana legalization groups and opponents of same-sex marriage — have planned rallies along a parade route in downtown Charlotte and a temporary stage set up by the city near the Time-Warner Cable Arena. 

But the balance between establishing free-speech zones and ensuring the safety of 6,000 delegates, thousands of members of the media and an expected 30,000 outsiders is hard to strike. And the convention’s security plan was not without a struggle, as local and federal officials fought a backlash from demonstrators who were worried that enhanced search-and-arrest rights could violate their First Amendment rights. 

Charlotte City Attorney Rob Hagemann said the city looked at security and free-speech tactics employed by previous conventions to help guide their decision-making process and has struck what he believes to be a healthy balance.

“The parade route and speakers platform provide opportunities for individuals and groups to obtain exclusive use of those locales for the time selected [or] assigned,” he said in an email to The Hill. 

“Public parks and sidewalks are — other than those restricted for security or transportation reasons — open and available to everyone and anyone for peaceable expressive activity, without the need for a permit,” he said.

With a $50 million federal grant to back the city’s security costs, the Secret Service has taken the lead, overseeing the construction of several miles of nine-foot high fencing and a bevy of steel barriers that stand ready to stop any explosives-laden vehicles. 

Thousands of local and state police will line the streets as protesters speak out for their causes, and a slew of other federal law enforcement agencies will be in the city to handle potential catastrophes.

“Although we cannot discuss the methods and means we utilize to carry out our protective responsibilities, we can say there is a tremendous amount of advance planning and coordination in the areas of venue security, air space security, training, communications, and credentialing,” said Secret Service spokesman Max Milien in an email to The Hill. 

The FBI will take care of overall crisis management, including acts of terrorism and hostage rescue operations, and the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) will be responsible for coordinating any response to and recovery from a possible terrorist attacks or natural disaster.

But demonstrators and First Amendment advocates fear that one law — passed by the city in January as it prepared for the thousands of protesters — goes too far. The law expands the rights of law enforcement to search backpacks and bags on people in the convention’s security “zone,” while it broadens a list of items that could lead to arrest, including seemingly innocuous items such as glass bottles and coolers.  

Charlotte police got a taste of what protests could be like when they sent about 100 officers to Chicago in May to help local law enforcement with security at a NATO conference. But the Chicago protests turned violent and bloody, as police donned gas masks and several people ended up with broken bones. 

Charlotte police and federal law enforcement authorities say they are hoping for a more peaceful series of protests. 

The largest demonstration is expected to be the March on Wall Street South, which took place Sunday. 

Not all groups that have scheduled speaking times near the convention are opposed to the policies of Obama and Democrats. About 50 demonstrators are expected to march the parade route with the Doctors for America group, which advocates for the Democrats’ healthcare reform measure that recently went into effect. No groups overtly connected to the Tea Party have secured scheduled times to protest.

Law enforcement will also be on watch for disruptions from anarchist groups.

Ahead of last week’s GOP convention in Tampa, Fla., the FBI and Department of Homeland Security issued a joint intelligence bulletin warning of a “high confidence” that anarchists were “preparing to use violence and criminal tactics in an attempt to disrupt the Republican National Convention.” Federal law enforcement officials feared such disruptions in Tampa could be a testing ground for Charlotte this week. 

This story was updated at 7:00 a.m.