When Tom DeLay and the Republicans proposed spending the week of the Republican National Convention on a cruise liner in New York Harbor, they were laughed off the water.
A few months later, however, the New York Police Department was mulling its own harbor cruise-a free ride on the Staten Island Ferry for unruly convention protesters.
The NYPD considered turning the troubled commuter ferry into a prison barge for some of the thousands of activists who could be arrested during the convention. A police official approached the city’s Department of Transportation in May with the ferry plan, one city official said. And Deputy Police Commissioner Paul Browne confirmed that converting the ferry into a floating prison “was discussed as an option.”
But after stiff resistance from the Department of Transportation, the notion was apparently dropped.
“A very cursory inquiry was made by the Police Department, but our ferry division told them that all of the boats would be needed for use,” said Tom Cocola, the agency’s spokesman.
Instead, city officials are readying unused space in regular jails, which are conveniently empty in this low-crime era. In an extreme case, the vacant Brooklyn House of Detention in downtown Brooklyn and the Queens House of Detention in Kew Gardens could be reopened, said the spokesman for the Department of Corrections, John Mohan.
“Even without two facilities that are offline, there’s still our regular capacity we have available … for a political convention or whatever else may happen to cause a spike in our population,” Mr. Mohan said. And in a crunch, “we have literally thousands of beds that we could use,” he said.
That the ferry plan was even considered attests to the sheer volume of arrests anticipated during the four days of the convention, which runs from Aug. 30 to Sept. 2 in Madison Square Garden. Manhattan District Attorney Robert Morgenthau and other law-enforcement officials have said that they will be ready to process as many as 1,000 arrests each day. That worst-case scenario would mark the largest set of mass arrests in America since May Day, 1971, when the last major protest of the Vietnam War ended with police and National Guardsmen herding 13,000 demonstrators onto the playing field at Robert F. Kennedy Stadium.
“There is the potential for mass arrests this time,” said Miami Police Chief John Timoney, a former top official in the New York Police Department who was responsible for security at the Democratic National Convention here in 1992.
The behind-the-scenes scramble for prison space underlines the massive security challenges that face political conventions and other major American events, and it offers a glimpse at the sprawling set of preparations concealed behind those friendly ads starring Ed Koch and an elephant. Even as they scramble for jail space, officials are collecting antidotes to various poisons and studying the effects of a bomb blast on Madison Square Garden. They’re also setting up barriers in city streets and bringing in detectors for biological and chemical toxins.
Most of those preparations remained veiled in secrecy. But a glance back at the 1992 Democratic National Convention in New York-set in a time of less controversy and a less obvious terror threat-suggests the morbid plans being laid.
Mr. Timoney, then the police inspector responsible for convention security, recalls that his department had no reason to expect mass arrests and didn’t make very many. (In Philadelphia in 2000, where Mr. Timoney was also police chief, more than 400 demonstrators were arrested.) But even back in 1992, city officials did prepare for a catastrophic terror attack.
“We created a temporary morgue with enough body bags for a couple thousand people-just in case, God forbid,” Mr. Timoney said. The morgue occupied the huge loading docks at the Farley Post Office, which will be used as the media center for this year’s convention.
Protest leaders say they’re worried that the intense security preparations-and the focus on jails-will lead to unnecessary arrests.
“We’re concerned that the Police Department is spending too much time worrying about where to put arrestees and not enough making sure that the constitutional rights of protesters are respected,” said the spokesman for a leading anti-war group, United for Peace and Justice. The group is battling the city for a chance to protest on Central Park’s Great Lawn, rather than the police’s preferred strip of the West Side Highway. “With the West Side Highway rally site, perhaps the Police Department is hoping to push us directly from the rally site onto the boat,” he said.
Protesters are making their own plans to respond to mass arrests.
Simone Levine, a member of the Association of Legal Aid Attorneys, said 120 legal-aid lawyers would be staffing the eight courtrooms-twice the usual number-that are expected to be open for arraignments during the convention week. (By law, arrestees must be brought before a judge within 24 hours of arrest.) The National Lawyers Guild will also staff each courtroom, offering representation to demonstrators too well-off to qualify for Legal Aid.
Ms. Levine said she didn’t expect many protesters to stage civil disobedience with the intent of being arrested.
“We haven’t heard of a lot of people attempting to get arrested. We’ve heard quite the opposite,” Ms. Levine said. “A lot of people are scared that they’re getting arrested while they engage in peaceful protest.”