The Republican National Convention, or RNC, comes to Jacksonville next month. Jacksonville Sheriff Mike Williams said that with the short turnaround time that he didn’t believe his agency could keep the event safe.
The Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office will be unable to keep the Republican National Convention safe when it comes to the city next month, Sheriff Mike Williams said in a frank interview with local news outlets Monday afternoon.
Right now, he says they only have "bits and pieces" of a plan to handle the event.
"Where we are today is we can’t support this plan," he said in the interview. "Where do we go from here is a good question. But where we are today, we can’t support it."
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Williams, a Republican, added, "There’s got to be some major re-working of what’s happening."
He said he’d been in touch with Mayor Lenny Curry, a former Republican Party of Florida chairman who has been a vocal advocate for bringing the convention here even as other cities’ leaders expressed concerns about the scale of a major political convention that brings thousands of law enforcement, protesters, delegates and dignitaries.
Williams said Curry understood the sheriff’s concerns as they have talked about them, including just before the sheriff’s news conference. Williams said he didn’t know what action the mayor could take at this point.
Williams and Curry were both elected in 2015, and throughout their time in office have maintained a publicly close relationship.
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Republican National Convention spokeswoman Emma Vaughn said they continue to work closely with Jacksonville officials on the event, including health and security measures.
"The Department of Justice is in the process of allocating millions of dollars in a safety grant," Vaughn said in a statement. "Jacksonville has accommodated upwards of 70,000 people for football games and other events, and we are confident in state, local and federal officials to be able to ensure a safe event for our attendees."
And Curry’s chief of staff, Jordan Elsbury, said what’s coming in about 35 days has been the subject of many discussions with all city leaders.
"From the onset of this process the Mayor and our administration have remained in constant communication with JSO, State and Federal law enforcement on providing safety and security for our City," Elsbury’s statement said. "Over the next few days we will continue to meet with Sheriff Mike Williams and his team on how to prioritize public safety related to this event."
The event has already undergone significant changes due to a rise in coronavirus cases in Jacksonville and Florida, with the host committee limiting attendees and adding some outdoor venues.
City Council President Tommy Hazouri, the only Democrat among the city’s top elected leaders, said City Council will vote on an emergency omnibus bill approving contracts and funding related to the convention a week from Tuesday. As of now, he said, he hasn’t seen a copy of the bill. The bill will require a two-thirds vote on a City Council where Republicans hold 13 of 19 seats.
If the vote were held today, Hazouri said, he couldn’t support bringing the convention here without significant changes, saying he agrees with Williams.
"He’s the sheriff and he’s in charge of our public safety and I commend him for taking leadership on this and putting the people and their safety first," Hazouri said. "… The physical safety of our people and our citizens and those who would be coming here can’t be at risk. It’s got to be minimal. With law enforcement’s position, I’m on the side of the law on this. I’m on the side of the sheriff."
Hazouri said he feared a situation like the one playing out in Portland, where camouflaged federal agents have violently manhandled citizens, could replicate.
"I’m not willing to spend city monies on overtime and all that’s involved for any convention. It wouldn’t be prudent. They said we wouldn’t have to spend any money and if we weren’t going to get reimbursed for sure — if we don’t have a plan, I wouldn’t support it."
The sheriff said he's only gotten about 25 percent of what he requested as far as funding for the security. Williams says he has already been talking to Republican Party officials about the issues, and said he "cannot say with good conscience that we are ready" to keep the event and community safe during the event.
"All of those things have been a concern for a couple of weeks," he said "But again, we are inside of 40 days away. We should be fine tuning this and I really don't have a solid plan. ... This one’s not going to work."
The biggest concern the sheriff said he had was having the right amount of resources to handle everything that comes with a convention like this, from protests "outside of the perimeter, things that we know we will have to deal with."
"We have to have the right equipment. We have to have the right number of personnel to handle that," he said. "Right now, we don’t have that."
That includes contracts that have to prepared for some of what they need, but can’t because grants and funds from the U.S. Department of Justice are not available yet.
As far as having the convention canceled, the sheriff said that is "not my call and not my job." And for all he knows, organizers may come back with another plan. But he remembers that the city had two years to plan for the 2005 Super Bowl, while there’s normally an 18-month planning period for the Republican National Convention, and not the few months they have had.
"Are we talking about scrapping the whole plan and trying to put something together within 40 days?," Williams said. "I don’t see that happening and I haven’t seen it coming together at this point."
The Republican National Convention is scheduled to take place downtown at several venues from Aug. 24 through Aug. 27. It was initially scheduled for Charlotte, but President Trump moved it after the North Carolina governor indicated masks may be mandatory during the event.
Williams said some people may have thought that some officials thought Jacksonville could "plug and play" the security measures that had been proposed when Charlotte was holding the event. But he said that is not the case since many changes had to be made in a completely different city and "start from scratch."
A majority of Jacksonville residents oppose the convention coming here, a poll has found. And the day after the mayor announced the city had secured the Republican convention, community and business leaders as well as local Democratic Party leaders protested the event over health, crime and crowd concerns.
Public records show that planning for the convention has dominated the sheriff’s public calendar, sometimes with as many as five planning meetings on his calendar in a day.
The Sheriff’s Office also faces a lawsuit from protesters who cite the coming convention as a reason that a federal judge should issue an injunction limiting the Sheriff’s Office’s ability to arrest and use violent crowd-control tactics.
Sheriff Williams: We are tasked with keeping the event safe. In this current configuration I don’t feel we confident we can make that happen. #rnc #jacksonville @FCN2go pic.twitter.com/AZidkxPj2a— Heather Crawford (@HeatherFCN) July 20, 2020