Court News Ohio
Court News Ohio
Court News Ohio

Cleveland Calm

Image of a man with a flower tucked behind his ear holding a red flag in front of a line of mounted police

Courts in Cleveland worked for a year to ensure they were ready to handle the potentially heavy demands on the justice system during this year’s Republican National Convention (RNC Protests by Beverly Yuen Thompson is licensed under CC BY- NC 2.0.).

Image of a man with a flower tucked behind his ear holding a red flag in front of a line of mounted police

Courts in Cleveland worked for a year to ensure they were ready to handle the potentially heavy demands on the justice system during this year’s Republican National Convention (RNC Protests by Beverly Yuen Thompson is licensed under CC BY- NC 2.0.).

The mood felt tense. Worries about potential conflict or violence seemed to ratchet up with each day’s news coverage. About 5,000 primary and alternate delegates were headed to the Republican National Convention in Cleveland from July 18 to 21. Estimates were another 15,000 news media and 20,000 to 30,000 protesters would descend on the city for the four-day event.

Clevelanders had concerns, given that tensions had boiled over at some past conventions. In Chicago in 1968, the country was hotly debating the Vietnam War, and anti-war activists and police clashed at the Democratic National Convention. Hundreds of protesters and officers were injured, and about 600 people were arrested. At the 2004 Republican National Convention in New York City, media reported more than 1,800 arrests, many for minor offenses. Then, in the weeks leading up to this year’s Cleveland convention, shootings involving police in Minnesota and Louisiana and a sniper attack on Dallas law enforcement escalated anxieties.

But planning in Cleveland had been in the works for two years, since July 2014, when the city of about 400,000 in this critical swing state was chosen as the location for the Republican Party’s presidential nominating convention.

For local courts, preparation began in earnest about a year ago. The Cleveland Municipal Court would carry much of the burden for managing misdemeanor offenses committed during the event. Judge Ronald B. Adrine, the court’s administrative and presiding judge, reached out to the Cleveland Police Department. That conversation launched a series of meetings between the municipal court’s staff and the common pleas court, city prosecutor, public defenders, corrections department officials and probation officers, as well as law enforcement agencies from all levels including the county sheriff and the U.S. Secret Service. About 40 agencies in all were involved, Judge Adrine said, with local police taking the lead in the discussions. The judge tapped Mike Negray, deputy court administrator, to represent the municipal court’s perspective with the group.

The officials delved into decades of political conventions, exploring what worked and what didn’t in other cities. Using a worst-case scenario of about 850 arrests, Negray said they discussed best practices, identified possible bottlenecks, and brainstormed strategies generally. They also practiced “table-top exercises,” playing out how to deal with various what-if scenarios.

“We looked at the whole puzzle, the overall process,” Negray said.

Readying for Mass Arrests
To prepare adequately, the municipal court devised a plan to handle 1,000 cases on each day of the convention. The court’s spokesman, Ed Ferenc, explained that 1,000 hearings, from traffic offenses to arraignments, usually flow through the court on a normal business day, so planners thought managing the expected high level of convention-related arrests would be doable. All other normal court business was postponed until after the convention.

For each day of the RNC, the court established five docket times for arraignments following arrests. Three courtrooms were available for each docket time. Judge Adrine said if capacity was reached in one, they would open up the next courtroom and then fill those time slots.

“We set it up accordion-style, so we could gear up or down depending on the volume,” he noted.

Officials also expanded the court’s hours of operation. The court – located in the Justice Center on Ontario Street, just beyond the convention “hard zone” – would be open 20 hours each day from 5 a.m. to 1 a.m. with staff working 10-hour shifts. About 60 of the more than 200 employees were assigned to work on site, while others worked from home. Judge Adrine said they limited the number of employees in the building because of expected hassles with restricted parking and commutes into the city.

Planners developed contingencies outside the downtown area in case prisoners couldn’t be brought into the court, additional facilities were needed to accommodate the caseload, or RNC security staff decided to close the building, Negray said.

The court conducted a special session on the Sunday before the official start of the RNC to move all those detained in the downtown jail to other jurisdictions, clearing space to hold up to about 900 people.

At the Cuyahoga County Common Pleas Court, normal business hours were kept, but the caseload was restricted to only critical matters.

“We planned ahead and cleared our dockets of trials and hearings so that members of the public would not be required to come downtown,” said Administrative Judge John J. Russo. “We were still open for business and held our regularly scheduled arraignments, and were here to deal with immediate legal issues.”

Extra Judges On Call
Although 13 judges typically staff the municipal court, uncertainty about the level of services that would be required led court leadership to enlist additional help.

“Because we didn’t know what we were up against, we thought it best to have a reserve of judges,” Judge Adrine said.

They reached out to the Ohio Supreme Court, asking for assistance. Along with the six municipal court judges already on call for the convention, Chief Justice Maureen O’Connor assigned 11 more judges to handle cases if needed. Five of them ordinarily preside in the county common pleas court, conveniently housed in the same building as the municipal court. The other six judges hailed from the Eighth District Court of Appeals, across the street; municipal courts in nearby Bedford, Parma, and South Euclid; and as far away as Fairborn, near Dayton, and Ottawa, in northwestern Ohio.

Negray said a short training session was held to orient the judges to the municipal court’s procedures, especially bail, fines, and penalties for misdemeanors, which the common pleas judges would be less familiar with. And they planned for the longer term as well.

“The chief wisely allowed these assignments to extend two to three months, as needed, to provide coverage if the convention resulted in a glut of jury trials,” Judge Adrine said.

Police Arrest a Few Dozen
With preparations in place, the convention began on Monday, July 18. Only four arrests were made during the first two days. Three were activists who had shimmied up the flagpole at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

Wednesday, July 20 marked the highest number of arrests – 18 – in a day for the entire convention. Police stated they arrested protesters who were part of a flag-burning demonstration by the Revolutionary Communist Party, most for failure to disperse and disorderly conduct.

The Wednesday arrests made Thursday the busiest and longest day for the municipal court. Ferenc said because of some complications in the arrest process, the charges came from the prosecutor’s office late Thursday afternoon, so the court conducted the arraignments that evening. In the end, demands on the court were light, and Judge Adrine was the only judge needed to oversee municipal court cases during the convention.

The common pleas court also experienced a minimal caseload.

“Fortunately, almost everyone was well-behaved, and there were no issues with protestors that reached the felony level,” Judge Russo said.

Restraint Prevails
Ferenc strolled around downtown near the convention site on Tuesday. He described the immense law enforcement presence, comprised of officers from across the country displaying powerful automatic weapons. While he said the amount of law enforcement was clearly designed “to intimidate everyone into behaving,” he also noted their “tremendous restraint” and the respect for the rights of citizens to assemble and protest. Police carried water to some protesters and engaged in friendly, sometimes playful, interactions with people on the streets during the event.

“Hats off to the city administration, police chief, and staff for putting a masterful plan in place,” Judge Adrine said.

It took a concerted effort and considerable cooperation among the varied organizations to lay a foundation for a smooth, largely peaceful convention. Negray said the city and the courts were well prepared and everyone continued to communicate throughout the week.

“To administer justice, we had to work seamlessly as a group. We couldn’t do it individually,” he stressed.

Judge Adrine added that police had the right attitude and their high profile kept the crowds calm.

“Proper preparation prevents poor performance – I think that was the case here,” he said. “I let out a long, drawn-out sigh of relief when it was over.”