In preparation for the Democratic National Convention, the city of Charlotte is expected to buy up to $25 million of new police equipment that could impact for years how officers do their jobs.
Other cities that have hosted political conventions have disclosed their purchases, including surveillance cameras, armored vehicles and non-lethal guns that fire pepper-spray-filled balls.
But the Charlotte DNC purchases won't come before a public vote, which is the usual procedure. And Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police said it won't disclose what it is buying.
A year ago, the Charlotte City Council voted to give City Manager Curt Walton power to approve DNC contracts, leaving council members -- and the public -- in the dark.
In response to a public records request by the Observer, Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police only gave spending totals by categories such as "technology" and "equipment," but offered no details. The CMPD said details would compromise its security plan for the DNC.
"All of that speaks to our ops plan, our strategy," said CMPD deputy chief Harold Medlock, who is overseeing the department's plans for the DNC.
Three City Council members, however, said they would like to have input and more openness.
Republican City Council member Warren Cooksey told the Observer he didn't realize he had voted in February 2011 to give Walton leeway to grant contracts. He said in retrospect that might not have been the best decision, and that such police spending should be debated in a public forum.
"We are relying on trust," Cooksey said.
Tampa, which is hosting the 2012 Republican National Convention, is having its security expenditures go before City Council for a vote, according to Santiago Corrada, chief of staff for Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn.
"We have a vetting process for those purchases," Corrada said.
The city of Denver, which hosted the 2008 DNC, was sued by the American Civil Liberties Union of Colorado in an attempt to get a detailed breakdown of how it spent its security money. In response to the lawsuit, and to dispel rumours that it had purchased "sonic ray guns," Denver detailed much of its spending.
Mark Silverstein, legal director for the ACLU in Denver, said the public has a right to know how tax dollars are being spent.
"It's an expenditure of public money," Silverstein said.
He also said if police are buying new types of non-lethal weapons, citizens should be able to ask if the police will have the proper training and what the cities guidelines are for use.
The CMPD's use of non-lethal Tasers has been controversial. Last July, the department suspended its use of Tasers after a police officer used a Taser on a man who was choking a woman at a Lynx light rail station. The suspect died.
In September, the city, in a public vote, spent $1.8 million on new Tasers that CMPD said are safer. The new Tasers were unveiled by police today.
Charlotte Mayor Anthony Foxx, a Democrat, said he was OK with the council's decision to give Walton spending power.
"I am not bothered by the discretion given to the City Manager unanimously in a vote by the last City Council," Foxx said in a statement released by his assistant, Tracy Montross. "As the Convention draws closer, we will need to be expeditious in decision making. Council members know that they are welcome to address any questions to the City Manager at any time."
Council member David Howard, who is also a Democrat, said he didn't realize he had voted to give the manager spending power. But he's OK with the decision.
"I definitely don't remember that vote, but it doesn't bother me," Howard said.
He added it's important to give the manager authority to act quickly because the DNC is so complex and important.
"This is a live moving organism," Howard said. "We should make sure we get this right. If something goes wrong, we won't care about how we did it."
Charlotte will receive a $50 million federal security grant for the September convention. Medlock said between 1/3 and 1/2 of that money will be used to buy equipment, with the rest used to pay overtime and salaries of officers from other departments coming to help.
Security plan would be "compromised"
N.C. public records law states that city purchases are public record. Historically CMPD purchases have gone before City Council, whether the department is buying new cars, or, as was the case last year, nearly $2 million of new Tasers.
In Charlotte, the city manager has authority to buy some things on his own. But all contracts worth more than $100,000 must be approved by City Council, unless prior authorization is given.
Walton said Friday that the city is putting the DNC police purchases out to bid.
Charlotte City Attorney Bob Hagemann said last week one reason the council gave the manager power to grant contracts was for greater speed and flexibility. Hagemann said the information, however, was public.
But the CMPD has refused to disclose what it is buying.
State law allows security information to be withheld, such as "plans to prevent or respond to terrorist activity, to the extent such records set forth vulnerability and risk assessments, potential targets, specific tactics, or specific security or emergency procedures..."
Katy Parker of the American Civil Liberties Union of North Carolina said knowing what the police are buying wouldn't compromise their plans to respond to possible convention violence.
The Pentagon, for instance, discusses publicly some of its contracts, even for purchases for items such as Air Force fighters and fuel tankers.
Some spending described
The city has so far spent $1.9 million of the $50 million grant.
CMPD said it has spent $965,000 on "technology;" $131,000 on "equipment;" $10,000 on "administration and travel;" and $765,000 on "facilities."
The City Council did vote in public to approve one expense, a $594,000 renovation and upgrade to 3,000-square-feet of the police command center uptown that will be used to coordinate DNC security. That vote was taken during a council meeting because state law requires construction contracts over $500,000 to be approved by an elected body.
In an interview with the Observer Friday, Medlock gave some broad sketches of what CMPD is planning and not planning to buy.
He said CMPD is not planning to buy an armored vehicle, as Tampa has done. He said the department won't buy a new helicopter.
He said much of the purchases would be to improve existing equipment. For instance, he said the city's existing cameras are "old and have limitations," and that the city might be replacing them and buying additional ones.
"Because of the level of security, I won't tell the number or placement," Medlock said.
He said the department has no plans at this time to buy new types of what CMPD calls "less-lethal weapons," which include Tasers and guns that fire pepper-spray balls.
Medlock said once the convention is over, CMPD will disclose how it spent the federal grant money.
The Tampa Bay Times has reported that Tampa has already spent $1.18 million for a video link between police helicopters and ground staff and a $273,000 armored vehicle. The city also plans to spend $2 million to buy 60 downtown surveillance cameras, according to the newspaper.
Charlotte council members voted to give Walton the power to award DNC contracts on the day they learned Charlotte had landed the convention.
Council members were meeting in a retreat at Johnson C. Smith University, and quickly went into closed session. Ebullient at having won the DNC, they quickly and unanimously voted on two items.
The first item was to approve agreements with the Democratic National Convention Committee and the Charlotte DNC Host Committee to hold the convention.
The second part of the agenda item authorized the "City Manager to authorize all contracts in furtherance of the City's obligations under the agreements approved...above."
Cooksey said the vote was taken quickly, and council members didn't ask many questions. He said he was most concerned about taxpayers being protected, and thought the second item was only about authorizing the manager to approve the overall contracts.
Republicans are a 9-2 minority on council, and Cooksey said he doubts he could get six votes to bring future DNC police spending before council. He said he may request the manager to give weekly updates on what the city has purchased.
Andy Dulin, the only other Republican on council, said he doesn't remember voting to give the manager spending power.
Dulin said he trusts Walton to "make the right purchases," but said there should be more transparency.
"For intellectual purposes I would like to know what we purchase," Dulin said. "Some of it would be very interesting to taxpayers."
After the ACLU lawsuit in Denver, the city detailed much of its spending, including new street barricades, mass arrest and detention equipment and supplies, a new hazardous material truck and a tactical vehicle used by SWAT teams.
Mayor Pro Tem Patrick Cannon, a Democrat, said he was OK with the purchases not coming before a public vote because he doesn't want protestors to know what equipment the police will be using.
Democrat John Autry, who was elected to council in November, said he didn't want to question the previous council's vote. But he said the police purchases should come before council and be scrutinized by elected officials and the public.
Maria David contributed.
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