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Cleveland Safety Director: National Guard Part Of Debate Security Plans

Ohio National Guard armored Humvees drive through Downtown Cleveland on June 5, after being called up in the wake of May 30 demonstrations. [Nick Castele / ideastream]
Ohio National Guard armored Humvees drive through Downtown Cleveland on June 5, after being called up in the wake of May 30 demonstrations.

Updated 9:51 a.m., Friday, Sept. 25, 2020

Cleveland police will take an “all-hands-on-deck” approach to Tuesday’s presidential debate, working with the Ohio National Guard and federal agencies to provide security, Safety Director Karrie Howard said Wednesday.

The Cleveland Clinic, which is co-hosting the event with Case Western Reserve University (CWRU), has agreed to cover the city’s overtime costs, Howard said.

At a committee meeting Wednesday, the safety director sought to reassure council members who questioned whether the debate would sap the Cleveland Division of Police’s attention and resources.

“We will not be securing the area around the Cleveland Clinic while letting the rest of the community go by the wayside,” Howard said. “We will be attentive to the entire city.”  

Police brass have canceled days off except for scheduled vacations, and officers will work 12-hour shifts during the Sept. 29 showdown between President Donald Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden.

The debate will take place at the Sheila and Eric Samson Pavilion at the Clinic and CWRU’s Health Education Campus. The Secret Service is in charge of security inside the venue, while the city will provide police protection in the perimeter outside, Howard said. This week the city announced a series of road closures around the venue. 

In a statement, Mayor Frank Jackson's office said Gov. Mike DeWine approved the mayor's request to send in the National Guard "to ensure the safety of the residents of and visitors to the City of Cleveland."

The city is banning a long list of items – including lumber, fireworks, backpacks larger than 18” x 13” x 7” and pepper spray – within a multi-block “event zone” around the Cleveland Clinic campus, according to a news release. The zone stretches from E. 79th Street east to Stokes Boulevard, and from Hough Avenue south to Cedar Avenue.

Cleveland will not restrict demonstrations to “protest zones,” Howard said.

“Even if we provided protest zones, there is nothing that stops them, we can’t prohibit them, constitutionally, from protesting anywhere where they want to outside of the secured area,” Howard said.

Councilman Blaine Griffin said he was concerned about possible unrest outside the debate spilling over into the surrounding neighborhood, part of which he represents.

In a phone interview Thursday, Griffin said he expected the city to have more resources on hand than during the summer’s demonstrations against the police killing of George Floyd. Those protests in Downtown Cleveland escalated into vandalism, while police used pepper balls, flash grenades and other devices on the crowd.

“What we have to do is restore the public confidence that this will not be a repeat of May 30, and that we actually have more assets on the ground from the federal, state and local government,” he said.

Griffin said he expects demonstrators from across the ideological spectrum to converge outside the debate. He invited police leaders to meet with Fairfax neighborhood residents over the weekend to answer their questions about debate preparations.

“You’re going to have a plethora of thought that’s going to descend upon Cleveland, and all of them are not going to agree,” he said. “We’ve just got to make sure that everyone recognizes that this is our city, and we don’t want anyone to damage our city.”

Some council members said they felt the debate was “thrust upon” the city in July after the University of Notre Dame declined to hold the event and the Clinic and CWRU stepped in as hosts.

Cleveland should have followed Notre Dame’s lead and passed on the debate, Councilman Tony Brancatelli said at Wednesday’s council meeting.

“I openly acknowledge I’m not excited about the Trump circus coming to town,” he said.

Nick Castele was a senior reporter covering politics and government for Ideastream Public Media. He worked as a reporter for Ideastream from 2012-2022.