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Jails, courts bracing for spike in arrests during DNC

By Elisabeth Arriero
earriero@charlotteobserver.com

Mecklenburg officials will boost their jail staffing by 30 percent and put double or triple the number of magistrates on duty in anticipation of a possible spike in arrests during the Democratic National Convention.

Authorities expect as many as 10,000 protesters to descend on Charlotte, as they have for past political conventions. A protest march planned for Sunday, Sept. 2, the eve of the DNC, could be the largest in Charlotte’s history.

Other large marches and rallies are planned throughout the week, and there will be a heavy police presence along the routes.

During demonstrations at the NATO conference in Chicago earlier this year, police allowed marchers to deviate from assigned routes, and protesters set off through the city, blocking streets around the spontaneous routes. Violence sometimes accompanied otherwise peaceful demonstrations.

Complicating matters for Mecklenburg officials is the closure of the uptown arrest processing center for renovations in March. The center is not expected to open again until early 2013.

That means all arrestees will be transported to the Spector Drive center in north Charlotte.

The county processes about 45,000 individuals a year at the processing centers, said Julia Rush, spokeswoman for the Mecklenburg sheriff’s office.

Sgt. Stephen Morin said the county will increase staffing at the north Charlotte center by about 30 percent.

“We’re hearing from a lot of outside people that are telling us to expect the perfect storm of angry people,” Morin said. “Some of them are going to want to get some street credit by getting arrested.”

The office will move sheriff’s officers from their posts at the uptown courthouse to increase staffing, and officers will not be allowed to take vacations during that week, Morin said.

Mecklenburg Chief District Court Judge Lisa Bell said magistrate staffing at the center on Spector Drive will double or triple.

Typically two to four magistrates work a shift at the arrest processing center. During the DNC, there will be six to eight per shift.

Magistrates will not be allowed to take days off, and everybody will be on call, Bell said.

Despite all the preparations, she hopes the worst-case projections don’t materialize.

“We’ve been told that (Charlotte-Mecklenburg police are) going to try to exercise a high tolerance, so we could be looking at a lot fewer arrests than others would be anticipating,” Bell said.

“The focus of arrests will be on individuals and situations where people are being hurt and property is being damaged.”

Those who pose no threat may just be issued citations so that officers do not have to leave their patrols to spend hours at an arrest processing center with a suspect, Bell said.

Charlotte-Mecklenburg police spokesman Bob Fey declined to discuss police strategy for dealing with those who break the law during the convention.

He said a citation and an arrest will ultimately lead to the same outcome – a court date.

He said the benefit of arresting someone is that the person is taken off the street.

But Fey said police would have “more than enough manpower” to take police off the street to process someone for an arrest.

The Mecklenburg County Courthouse will be open during the week of the convention, but no criminal trials will be held. Only a few courtrooms will be operating, officials have said.

To accommodate the increased staffing, the court system’s four civil magistrates will work alongside its 28 criminal magistrates at the north Charlotte arrest processing center.

Typically civil magistrates work in the uptown courthouse dealing with small claims hearings and mental health commitments and performing weddings.

But during the DNC, those court functions will be suspended.

Bell said those civil magistrates will receive additional training before the DNC.

Magistrates will use the same protocol they’ve always used to decide whether an arrestee needs to be housed, such as the risk of someone not appearing for court or committing another offense, Bell said.

Typically, arrestees spend around two hours at the processing center, but it may take longer during the DNC, depending on how many people are arrested, she added.

Although most arrestees are expected to be given a court date and released, Morin said the jail has plenty of space to house a large number of arrestees.

“If you punch a cop and get stupid, you’re probably going to end up sitting in jail in an orange jumpsuit,” Morin said. “But the goal really isn’t to go out and lock a bunch of people up. The goal is to keep order.” Staff writer Cleve Wootson Jr. contributed.

Arriero: 704-777-7070
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