GOP CONVENTION | Police chief hits the streets to keep the peace
CLEVELAND (AP) — Cleveland Police Chief Calvin Williams has never been far from the action during the Republican convention, taking charge when a flag-burning turned into a melee, stepping in when demonstrators nearly came to blows and joining bicycle officers on patrol.
“I don’t stand by. I’m still a police officer. I’m out there to make sure nothing happens,” he said Wednesday, Day 3 of the four-day political gathering that has focused the eyes of the world on the chief and his 1,500-member department.
The convention represents a stern test for the Cleveland police force: Fears of violence are running high during this mean summer of racially charged bloodshed in the U.S. and extremist attacks abroad. And the department has a troubled history when it comes to restraint and the use of force against minorities.
On Wednesday afternoon, 17 people were arrested during a melee that authorities said erupted after a member of a revolutionary group tried to burn a flag and instead caught himself on fire. Two officers suffered slight injuries.
That brought to 22 the number of people arrested during the convention, well below the many hundreds some feared.
“Right now, I think so far, so good,” Williams said Wednesday night. “We’re still out there, we’re still vigilant, to make sure we finish this day and the last day tomorrow on a positive note.”
City officials have been hoping for a mostly trouble-free convention to help repair the reputation of the Cleveland police, who are operating under federal supervision after a U.S. Justice Department investigation found a pattern of excessive force and violations of people’s civil rights.
In 2012, Cleveland police killed two unarmed black people in a 137-bullet barrage after a high-speed chase that began when officers mistook engine backfire for gunshots. Two years later, Tamir Rice, a 12-year-old black boy, was killed by a white officer while playing with what turned out to be a pellet gun.
While the Secret Service is responsible for security at the convention hall itself, Williams — a 52-year-old black man who has been chief for 2 1/2 years — is in charge of the rest of Cleveland, with help from thousands of local, state and federal law enforcement officers.
Instead of confining himself to headquarters or a command center, Williams is often close to the action out on the streets.
On Tuesday, when a menacing crowd closed in around right-wing radio host Alex Jones in the city’s Public Square, Williams himself waded in and hustled Jones away to an SUV.
Later that day, the chief broke up a gathering of what he called “hooligans” wearing bandanas over their faces. And for good measure, he spent three hours riding with bicycle officers on patrol that night.
On Wednesday, the chief was at the site of the flag-burning melee, trying to restore order and personally checking convention delegates’ credentials to help usher them past the chaos and into the arena.