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National

Philadelphia Police Consider 2000 RNC In Preparing for Democratic Convention

KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:

Authorities in Philadelphia learned some hard lessons in 2000. That's the year the city hosted a national political convention for Republicans. City officials made hostile statements about protesters before the event and ended up arresting more than 400 of them. Bobby Allyn of member station WHYY reports the legacy of the RNC is front and center as officials brace themselves for tens of thousands of demonstrators at the DNC next week.

BOBBY ALLYN, BYLINE: On July 27, 2000, four days before the RNC kicked off, Pennsylvania authorities descended on a puppet warehouse in West Philadelphia. Activists knew it as the Ministry of Puppetganda. After spying on activists there, police say they were a communist-inspired group that could be dangerous. The worry was that marchers, using PVC pipes and chains, would create human blockades to disrupt the convention.

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SYLVESTER JOHNSON: Their intention was to stop down all traffic and block everything that's going on and stop the movement, shut down the entire city.

ALLYN: That's then-Deputy Police Commissioner Sylvester Johnson. Jodi Netzer helped rent the warehouse and disputed Johnson's take.

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JODI NETZER: We're making cardboard art - puppetry. That's the purpose of this space.

ALLYN: Seventy-five people were arrested during the warehouse raid and detained during the convention. Sixteen years later, Philadelphia Police Commissioner Richard Ross is trying to strike a different tone.

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RICHARD ROSS: We're not looking to make arrests. That is not our plan. Obviously, if the situation warrants it, then that's what we'll do, but only as a last resort.

ALLYN: Ross thinks optics matter. And so, he says, none of his 6,600 will be wearing riot gear.

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ROSS: We will not be outfitted in anything special for the DNC. I mean, it's going to be soft clothes. We're going to deal with this just as it's a peaceful event.

ALLYN: Ross says the police shootings in Baton Rouge and Dallas have some officers feeling on edge. In response, Philly, like many cities, has doubled up patrols. Still, the thinking is that the military-style protection for the Democratic National Convention might just drive a deeper wedge between protesters and police. Ahead of the DNC, city council decriminalized nuisance crimes, like disorderly conduct and blocking a highway. Officials are catching sharp criticism for another part of its convention planning, though. The city has purchased special insurance to cover up to $5 million in legal claims of police brutality or excessive force. The so-called riot insurance is common for big political events. Cleveland, too, took out private insurance this year for police misconduct liability. But civil rights advocates say the practice sends a bad signal.

LARRY KRASNER: They have insurance that basically allows them to be deliberately indifferent to the civil rights of individuals.

ALLYN: Larry Krasner is a Philadelphia criminal defense attorney who represented protesters in 2000 and says he'll be keeping an eye on how things shake out this time around. For NPR News, I'm Bobby Allyn in Philadelphia. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.