Planned protest rallies could easily turn violent, experts say

Recent police shootings and retaliatory attacks on police in Dallas and other cities have prompted local law enforcement agencies to step up security for protest rallies scheduled in Dayton and Cincinnati this weekend.

Officials fear the tinderbox of racial tensions between police and protesters — both outraged by the deadly shootings of their constituents — could explode into violent encounters at the slightest provocation.

Bill Parsons, a local security expert and 28-year veteran of the Dayton Police Department, said police and protesters must take preemptive actions to avoid such a scenario.

“A lot of what needs to be done needs to be done ahead of time, and that’s on both sides,” Parsons said. “Police departments would be remiss if they did not put more people on the street and in their vehicles to deal with the potential risk for violence. But officers need to understand that they’re going to have to approach these situations with a little more caution. That starts with the idea that we want to talk first, communicate more effectively, be more empathetic and sensitive to the fact that the situation is very volatile now.”

Responsibility also rests on the shoulders of protest organizers, such as Black Lives Matter Miami Valley, which plans a peaceful protest at 3 p.m. Sunday at RiverScape park in downtown Dayton.

The organization’s Facebook post urges supporters to wear black, and said they will line the sidewalks with their signs without disrupting traffic. The organization also responded to attacks on police on Friday, with its post: Vengeance. Retaliation, Violence NOT the answer!”

Parsons warned such protests can be easily hijacked by outside agitators intent on escalating the protest toward a violent end.

“If anyone inside the Black Lives Matter movement knows, believes, feels or has information about somebody planning to attach themselves to their protest and do something violent, they need to let law enforcement know if they want the protest itself to be peaceful and further their message,” he said. “What Black Lives Matter needs to understand is that the very officers that they’re protesting against are protecting their right to protest. The police no more want violence than the folks who are organizing these rallies do.”

In Springfield, a group of about 25 local police, Clark County sheriff’s deputies and members of the Springfield unit of the NAACP came together Saturday to call for peace, prayer and support for the uniformed officers protecting their neighborhoods.

“What we are trying to do is get the message out that we support our departments,” said NAACP President Denise Williams. “We want to come together and pray for the safety of our officers here in our city.”

Still, heightened awareness of the potential for violence led some police departments around Ohio to adopt special policies heading into the weekend.

Cincinnati police spokeswoman Tiffaney Hardy said police will use two-officer patrols throughout the weekend and then will reevaluate. A police union official said some officers had expressed a desire to be in two-officer cars instead of alone for increased safety.

Union officials elsewhere said the Franklin County sheriff’s office was switching to two-officer cars for its patrols, while the president of the Cleveland Police Patrolmen’s Association said the department sent out an order late Thursday taking one-officer cars off the street and having officers double up. Toledo police also planned to double up on patrols.

And looking ahead, at least one Ohio police official says she’s concerned that the tensions between police and protesters won’t have had time to decompress by the time the Republican National Convention in Cleveland starts on July 18.

“I’m nervous as hell,” said Nina Turner, a former Democratic state senator from Cleveland who co-chairs the Ohio Collaborative Community-Police Advisory Board, an initiative of Republican Gov. John Kasich.

Cleveland Police Chief Calvin Williams assured reporters Friday evening that the city is prepared. “We have enough officers,” he said at a news conference, where he and the city’s mayor announced a tip line for people to report suspicious activity as the four-day political event approaches.

But Turner said the convention “was going to be a powder keg all along.”

“This just puts more gasoline and dynamite and the match on top of all of that,” she said.

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