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, wading into the crowd 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 set himself on fire. Two officers suffered slight injuries.
“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 car 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 2½ years — is in charge of the rest of Cleveland, with help from thousands of local, state and federal law enforcement officers.
Instead of holing up at 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 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.
The department has also been relying heavily on 300 bicycle cops, who are highly mobile yet not as intimidating as officers in cruisers. The bicycle officers have literally kept protesters in line, turning their bikes sideways to keep opposing protest groups apart.
Sixteen-year-old Hashime Hill, of Cleveland, approached Williams as the chief was making his rounds Wednesday afternoon. Hashime said he wants to become a police officer someday.
“I like him because he’s an active chief,” the teenager said. “He comes out of the office and he talks to the people. He gets to understand. He asks us what’s going on, shakes hands and talks to the kids. Not like the other people who stay in the office. He’s cool.”
Some protesters, too, had praise for the police during the opening days of the convention.
Jesse Gonzalez, 26, of Lakewood, Ohio, carried a rifle on the Public Square while wearing a camouflage-style “Make America Great Again” hat. Gun owners in Ohio can legally carry their weapons in the open. Williams said police officers have been approaching those carrying guns to let them know what’s expected of them.
Gonzalez said he has had “really, really super-friendly conversations” with officers inquiring about the type of weapon he has. So far, he said, the police have been “really professional.”
“I’m very happy that everything’s been so civil, despite all the shouting,” he said.