Secret Service and Chicago police ramp up preparations for Democratic convention as protests loom

Secret Service and Chicago police officials are ramping up preparations for the Democratic National Convention in August, with officers receiving training ranging from First Amendment rights to handling violent protests and mass arrests.

Secret Service Director Kimberly Cheatle visited Chicago this week to tour the United Center, where the televised prime-time convention speeches will take place, and McCormick Place, the convention center where the party will conduct business during the daytime.

The convention, which takes place from August 19 to 22, is expected to draw a crowd of 50,000 visitors – including delegates, media, vendors and more – and is also sure to be met with huge protests.

Democrats are poised to nominate President Joe Biden for reelection at their Chicago convention. But recent demonstrations across the country against Biden’s support for Israel’s war in Gaza have raised the specter of a replay of the 1968 Democratic convention, which saw violent clashes between Chicago police and anti-Vietnam War protesters.

On Monday, Cheatle addressed the almost 100 agents of the Secret Service’s Chicago field office in a closed-door meeting. The Chicago field office also covers Milwaukee, where Republicans are holding their convention in July, so the team has been planning for both gatherings.

Cheatle said in an interview that law enforcement officials are preparing for a wide range of scenarios.

“The lone gunman,” Cheatle said. “You’ve got folks who are radicalized, you’ve got demonstration that may pop up and, you know, obviously, we hope they remain peaceful here, but they could, you know, turn violent.”

The official security perimeter for this summer’s convention hasn’t yet been detailed. The city of Chicago, meanwhile, is negotiating over protest routes with groups that filed a federal lawsuit after the city denied their protest permits.

The Chicago Police Department’s Crime Prevention and Information Center will serve as its command center to monitor all convention-related events citywide, including protests. The command center will also include representatives from the Secret Service, the Illinois State Police, the FBI and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.

Federal and local authorities have been closely following the threat stream from both domestic and foreign extremist groups. A recent joint intelligence bulletin from the National Counterterrorism Center, the Department of Homeland Security and the FBI warned that groups, including al Qaeda and ISIS, continue to generate propaganda urging followers to conduct “lone wolf” attacks on US soil using basic methods such as gunfire in crowded places or vehicles in ramming attacks. The bulletin cites an al Qaeda online propaganda article that highlighted the “increased division between the American people, between the right and the left, and between the Republicans and their supporters, and the Democrats and their supporters,” which could increase the impact of any attack.

“I think everyone has a sense that the threats are real. This is not an academic exercise that we’re running through. We are planning for real-world possibilities,” said Jeff Burnside, the Secret Service coordinator for the Democratic convention.

Meanwhile, Chicago police officers have been holding drills on a wide range of potential scenarios — including violent protests, extracting individuals from hostile crowds, medical emergencies and more. Bicycle teams have prepared to move quickly through the city to form barricades if necessary.

Officers are also receiving constitutional and legal training on First Amendment protest rights and procedures if mass arrests are necessary.

However, Chicago police leaders say they hope the hundreds of hours of training, including tactics in de-escalation, will help to avoid clashes with protesters.

“We don’t want to have conflicts with people if we don’t have to. We don’t want to clash with people if we don’t have to,” Chicago Police Superintendent Larry Snelling said. “If people come here to express themselves, by all means do it, but do it according to the law and do it peacefully. It’s that simple. Once you start to break the law, then … we have to restore the peace.”

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