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Courts / Law

Tampa Police Train for Worst, Hope for Best at Republican National Convention

While the inside of the St. Pete Times Forum is filled with convention-goers, thousands of people are expected to be outside, trying to get their viewpoints heard. Violent riots have broken out at several recent conventions, so how are Tampa police preparing?

These are the sounds that keep Tampa police officials up at night:

"We have rights!! We have rights!!"

Rioters were front and center in the news around the world at the last Republican convention in St. Paul and the NATO summit earlier this year in Chicago. But these "radicals" bleed police blue under their sweaty T-Shirts: what we're hearing is the sound of Tampa police officers "posing" as rioters, pelting their fellow officers with insults and tennis balls.

(Sound of screaming, banging on garbage cans.)

It's all part of an intensive training session designed to get officers who will be on the streets a taste of what they can expect. And that included a taste of tear gas.

(Sound of gas canisters going off.)

In this case, it was just blue smoke bombs going off. But that's the kind of reception they can expect from at least some of the tens of thousands of protesters expected to crowd into downtown Tampa.

"I tell them all the time, 'Don't be that guy that's going to be on that news show in Asia.' Don't be that guy, because this is going to go worldwide," says Tampa police officer Kris Babino.  He's one of the people training the more than 3,000 officers expected to be patrolling the streets of downtown during the convention. He has two main lessons. One: they can expect their every move to be photographed or videotaped.

"They want to be noticed," says Babino. "They want their fifteen minutes of fame."

The other lesson is the protesters will try to bait officers, to get a reaction. Toss in the summer heat and having to stand in a police line for hours, and that may be hard to avoid. Babino shows officers a video of a policeman cracking heads after being struck by- a bubble.

"I went to Walmart after seeing this video," he says. "I bought some bubbles, so during the riot training I blow bubbles at them. But we explain to them what really is an appropriate response. Really - are you having that kind of a day where you're going to try to arrest somebody? That guy is forever immortalized on the World Wide Web for that sort of thing."

And it's not just Tampa officers who are getting trained - nearly three thousand officers from around the state will augment the local force. Tampa Police Chief Jane Castor says they're getting three days of intense training from both people like Officer Babino as well as Homeland Security. And while she says the vast majority of people protesting will be peaceful, they're preparing for the handful who will try to provoke a little mayhem.

"We don't anticipate things will get out of hand," says Castor. "It's our sense of urgency - identifying those individuals that are bent on disorder and disruption and getting them out of the crowd immediately. There's going to be arrests, there's going to be some disorder on a very small scale, is our anticipation.

Castor says more than 200 bicycles were purchased - in addition to being able to get through the crowds easily, she says they can be placed side-to-side, as impromptu barricades. Another lesson they learned from what happened in St. Paul and Chicago is to keep every law enforcement official on the same radio frequency

"Our communication is much, much better," she says. "We'll be in real-time communication with every officer in the downtown area. And we'll be able to monitor crowd and traffic issues through the camera system in the downtown, and then, we've got the two-way communication with all of the the citizens and business owners in the downtown area, so they'll be able to contact us if there's anything going on in their neighborhood."

Babino says just about all the officers he has trained seem to be receptive to their mantra of avoiding being provoked. He says most officers have had to change the way they think - because instead of being on a typical patrol, the convention is shaping up to be something completely different.