Police departments in cities across the country are beefing up their ranks for Election Day, preparing for possible civil unrest and riots after the historic presidential contest.
Public safety officials said in interviews with The Hill that the election, which will end with either the nation’s first black president or its first female vice president, demanded a stronger police presence.
Some worry that if Barack Obama loses and there is suspicion of foul play in the election, violence could ensue in cities with large black populations. Others based the need for enhanced patrols on past riots in urban areas (following professional sports events) and also on Internet rumors.
Democratic strategists and advocates for black voters say they understand officers wanting to keep the peace, but caution that excessive police presence could intimidate voters.
Sen. Obama (Ill.), the Democratic nominee for president, has seen his lead over rival Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) grow in recent weeks, prompting speculation that there could be a violent backlash if he loses unexpectedly.
Cities that have suffered unrest before, such as Detroit, Chicago, Oakland and Philadelphia, will have extra police deployed.
In Oakland, the police will deploy extra units trained in riot control, as well as extra traffic police, and even put SWAT teams on standby.
“Are we anticipating it will be a riot situation? No. But will we be prepared if it goes awry? Yes,” said Jeff Thomason, spokesman for the Oakland Police Department.
“I think it is a big deal — you got an African-American running and [a] woman running,” he added, in reference to Obama and GOP vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin. “Whoever wins it, it will be a national event. We will have more officers on the street in anticipation that things may go south.”
The Oakland police last faced big riots in 2003 when the Raiders lost to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in the Super Bowl. Officials are bracing themselves in case residents of Oakland take Obama’s loss badly.
Political observers such as Hilary Shelton and James Carville fear that record voter turnout could overload polling places on Election Day and could raise tension levels.
Shelton, the director of the NAACP’s Washington bureau, said inadequate voting facilities is a bigger problem in poor communities with large numbers of minorities.
“What are local election officials doing to prepare for what people think will be record turnout at the polls?” said Shelton, who added that during the 2004 election in Ohio voters in predominantly black communities had to wait in line six to eight hours to vote.
“On Election Day, if this continues, you may have some tempers flare; we should be prepared to deal with that but do it without intimidation,” said Shelton, who added that police have to be able to maintain order at polling stations without scaring voters, especially immigrants from “police states.”
Carville, who served as a senior political adviser to former President Bill Clinton, said that many Democrats would be very angry if Obama loses. He noted that many Democrats were upset by Sen. John Kerry’s (D-Mass.) loss to President Bush in the 2004 election, when some Democrats made allegations of vote manipulation in Ohio, the state that ultimately decided the race.
Experts estimated that thousands of voters did not vote in Ohio because of poor preparation and long lines.
Carville said Democratic anger in 2004 “would be very small to what would happen in 2008” if the same problems arose.
Carville said earlier this month that “it would be very, very, very dramatic out there” if Obama lost, a statement some commentators interpreted as predicting riots. In an interview Tuesday, however, Carville said he did not explicitly predict rioting.
“A lot of Democrats would have a great deal of angst and anger,” said Carville, who predicted that on Election Day “the voting system all around the country is going to be very stressed because there’s going to be enormous turnout.”
Other commentators have made such bold predictions.
“If [Obama] is elected, like with sports championships, people may go out and riot,” said Bob Parks, an online columnist and black Republican candidate for state representative in Massachusetts. “If Barack Obama loses there will be another large group of people who will assume the election was stolen from him….. This will be an opportunity for people who want to commit mischief.”
Speculation about Election-Day violence has spread on the Internet, especially on right-wing websites.
This has caught the attention of police departments in cities such as Cincinnati, which saw race riots in 2001 after police shot a young black man.
“We’ve seen it on the Internet and we’ve heard that there could be civil unrest depending on the outcome of [the election,]” said Lt. Mark Briede of the Cincinnati Police Department. “We are prepared to respond in the case of some sort of unrest or some sort of incident.”
Briede, like other police officials interviewed, declined to elaborate on plans for Election Day. Many police departments have policies prohibiting public discussion of security plans.
James Tate, second deputy chief of Detroit’s police department, said extra manpower would be assigned to duty on Election Night. He said problems could flare whichever candidate wins.
“Either party will make history and we want to prepare for celebrations that will be on a larger scale than for our sports teams,” Tate said.
He noted that police had to control rioters who overturned cars after the Tigers won the 1984 World Series.
“We’re prepared for the best-case scenario, we’re prepared for the worst-case scenario,” he said. “The worst-case scenario could be a situation that requires law enforcement.”
But Tate declined to describe what the worst-case scenario might look like, speaking gingerly like other police officials who are wary of implying that black voters are more likely than other voting groups to cause trouble.
Shelton, of the NAACP, said he understands the need for police to maintain order. But he is also concerned that some political partisans may point their finger at black voters as potential troublemakers because the Democratic nominee is black.
Shelton said any racial or ethnic group would get angry if they felt disenfranchised because of voting irregularities.
Police officials in Chicago, where Obama will hold a Nov. 4 rally, and Philadelphia are also preparing for Election Day.
“The Chicago Police Department has been meeting regularly to coordinate our safety and security plans and will deploy our resources accordingly,” said Monique Bond, of the Chicago Police Department.
Frank Vanore, of the Philadelphia Police Department, said officials were planning to mobilize to control exuberant or perhaps angry demonstrations after the World Series, which pits the Phillies against the Tampa Bay Rays.
He said the boosted police activity would “spill right over to the election.”
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