JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – Sheriff Mike Williams said there’s not enough time, money or officers to keep everyone safe during the Republican National Convention planned for Jacksonville in just five weeks.
On Monday, Williams cited lack of clear plans, inadequate funding and an insufficient amount of law enforcement personnel to handle the delegates, visitors and potential protesters that the RNC would attract to Jacksonville.
“With a growing list of challenges -- be it financial, with communication, with the timeline -- I cannot say with confidence that this event or our community will not be at risk,” Williams said. “I don’t have the ability to call off the convention but I don’t have what I need to keep us safe.”
Williams told Politico that a pledged $50 million grant to help with security has been paired back to $33 million and there are strings attached that make letting contracts too difficult. Not to mention that plans for the events and venues are still not solidified.
Security would have to change considerably from an event inside the VyStar Veteran’s Memorial Arena -- as originally planned -- to events to multiple outdoor venues, the RNC chairman announced last week to allow crowds to comply with coronavirus guidelines at a time that infections in Northeast Florida have gone up exponentially.
The convention was moved from Charlotte to Jacksonville last month after North Carolina’s governor told the RNC it would have to comply with social distancing rules.
“Listen, maybe if things had gone perfectly, we’d gotten there, but they didn’t,” Williams said. “I mean, from the very beginning, there’s been challenges with communication. ... You know, I need to know the things I need. They’re going to be here in a month. And as it stands right now. I have no idea.”
Williams said the short timeline is the biggest challenge, noting that with most large events there are months, even a year to plan, adding, “We are past the point of no return.”
“We are tasked with, obviously, keeping the events safe, keeping our community safe during the event. I can tell you in this current configuration. I don’t feel comfortable we can do that,” Williams said.
Williams said Mayor Lenny Curry was aware of his concern. Within 30 minutes of making those statements to News4Jax, Curry’s chief of staff, Jordan Elsbury, released a statement:
Jacksonville City Council President Tommy Hazouri commended Williams for his honesty.
“A very big piece of this convention is the safety of our public and I think the sheriff is agreeing to that and he acknowledges that,” Hazouri said. “And if he doesn’t feel comfortable today, when will he feel comfortable, if at all?”
Dean Black, chairman of the Duval County Republican Party, said security questions are not within his group’s purview.
“We continue to trust all Republican leaders to exercise good leadership and judgment. The Duval GOP does not comment on matters pertaining to security,” Black said.
Daniel Henry, chairman of the Duval County Democratic Party, said he thinks it’s important to note that the sheriff spoke out without the mayor by his side.
“I think he was really trying to make a point as to why this is such a serious issue and why we should all should be taking it very seriously,” Henry said.
Politico said it obtained a letter from the Florida Sheriffs Association in early July that asked departments in the state’s 67 counties for 2,000 officers. Only 500 were able to go, Bob Gualtieri, president of the association and Pinellas County Sheriff told Politico over the weekend.
The public information officer with the Florida Sheriff’s Association she wasn’t aware that the request for help for JSO had been made. News4Jax polled area sheriffs about their willingness to help. Clay County was willing to provide 40 deputies. Baker and Nassau County sheriffs said they will provide assistance if asked. Putnam and Flagler counties have not yet responded to the question.
News4Jax crime and safety expert Ken Jefferson said securing an outdoor event would require many more police officers.
“You’re going to have to increase your manpower, maybe by 50 percent, maybe more,” Jefferson said. “But at the minimum, say you had 100 officers in the arena, you would need to have at least 150 officers at another venue to help out.”
Earlier this month, News4Jax reported on a lawsuit filed against the convention’s organizers, calling the event a “nuisance injurious” to the public health of the city’s residents. On July 10, Circuit Judge Katie Dearing has ordered the RNC to the Trump campaign to respond to the legal complaint within 15 days.