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U.S. Secret Service in Cleveland caught by surprise after presidential debate ‘thrown into our lap’

The Plain Dealer  Cleveland logo The Plain Dealer Cleveland 7/29/2020 By Cory Shaffer and Evan MacDonald, cleveland.com

CLEVELAND, Ohio – Monday’s announcement that the Cleveland Clinic and Case Western Reserve University would host the first presidential debate of 2020 came as a surprise to the head of the local branch of the U.S. Secret Service, whose office must now scramble to devise a detailed security plan ahead of the Sept. 29 event.

“This kind of just got thrown into our lap,” Jon Shuck, Special Agent in Charge of the Secret Service’s Cleveland branch, told cleveland.com in a phone interview this week. “Typically, we have several months to plan something like this. We have a little over a month.”

Shuck said the Secret Service was not involved in the planning or selection processes, and only learned this week that the city would host a debate.

“It will be a challenge, but we’re not concerned,” he said. “We’ll still come up with a plan, but it will have to be a lot quicker.”

The U.S. Secret Service is perhaps the most central agency to confirm that it was not involved in the planning process. It is now left to prepare for a significant security event that often draws international media and thousands of protesters in the middle of a pandemic that has left local governments and organizations strapped for cash.

The city of Cleveland and its police department were also not involved in the planning process, Mayor Frank Jackson said in a statement issued Tuesday. The Cuyahoga County Sheriff’s Department did not immediately return a request for comment.

The debate will take place at the Sheila and Eric Samson Pavilion, part of the Clinic’s Health Education Campus. The organizers have yet to decide whether to allow a live audience at debate due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Both the Clinic and CWRU directed questions about debate security to the Commission on Presidential Debates, which is organizing the event.

Frank Fahrenkopf, the co-chair of the Commission on Presidential Debates, said the Secret Service will be in charge the security plan and will work with local law enforcement in Cleveland to devise one.

Shuck said his agency would set up a secure perimeter around the pavilion and provide security within that perimeter. Local law enforcement, including officers from the Cleveland, Cleveland Clinic and Case Western police departments as well as Cuyahoga County sheriff’s deputies and Ohio Highway Patrol, will provide security outside the perimeter, Shuck said.

Presidential debates often attract large protests outside the venues, with groups supporting and opposing both candidates. Local law enforcement in cities that have held past debates usually rack up overtime costs that can stretch into the millions of dollars providing security for the event.

In 2016, law enforcement in Nassau County, on Long Island in New York, arrested 24 protesters outside Hofstra University, where Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump debated for the first time. Most arrests were for charges of disorderly conduct, according to Newsday.

Before the debate, Nassau County officials estimated security for the event could cost taxpayers up to $2 million, Newsday reported.

Hosts or sponsors of the debates sometimes reimburse cities for the costs of the events. It’s unknown as of Wednesday whether that will be true for Cleveland.

Shuck said that there have always been protests at presidential debates regardless of which political party holds the White House, and the Secret Service plans for such demonstrations.

“Obviously the time we’re in, it’s amped up a little bit,” he said. “We just ask that it’s peaceful.”

The debate also comes amid a pandemic that is surging in Ohio. Dr. Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute for Allergy and Infectious Diseases, warned Monday that Ohio is among the states showing early signs of a resurgence of a coronavirus outbreak. The pandemic already forced Trump and the Republican Party to scrap its plans to host part of the Republican National Convention in Jacksonville, Florida. The Duval County Sheriff told Politico that the community was “still not close to having some kind of plan...that makes me comfortable that we’re going to keep that event and the community safe.”

Sheriff Mike Williams attributed at least part of reaching his rationale on the short notice the community received that it would host the event.

“So you know with that, we can’t pull it off in any kind of current configuration,” he told Politico. “But again, it’s not my job to plan the [convention]. It’s my job to be able to provide security for it, but I can’t do it right now in this time frame with this current configuration of the event.”

University of Notre Dame President Rev. John I. Jenkins said in a statement that the university withdrew as the host site “because the necessary health precautions would have greatly diminished the educational value of hosting the debate on our campus.” The statement does not mention any security concerns.

Notre Dame and the Secret Service handled most of the security planning in the months before that university withdrew from hosting the first debate. The sheriff’s office in St. Joseph County, Indiana, where Notre Dame is located, only became involved in the planning last month, the agency’s Executive Officer Major Steven Noonan said.

“The next month or so really would’ve been the crunch time,” Noonan said.

The St. Joseph County Sheriff’s Office is used to planning for presidential visits to Notre Dame on short notice, sometimes as little as two weeks, Noonan said.

“Sometimes you do have to scramble, but the Secret Service generally has a good diagram and outline of how to do things,” Noonan said.

Noonan said the sheriff’s office did not have any security concerns, and referred to the Notre Dame statement that cited the coronavirus as the reason the university withdrew as a host.

Shuck said the Secret Service would dedicate an agent to oversee safety measures related to COVID-19, and there will be testing and personal protective equipment for agents. He also said working with the Cleveland Clinic will be a boost.

Even still, agents are working on a tight schedule. Shuck said his office has an advantage in that the city hosted the 2016 Republican National Convention. The Secret Service also took the lead in providing security for that event, which was much larger and more of a logistical challenge than a debate, and Shuck said that it would offer a road map for agents to plan this event quickly.

“Obviously, more time would be helpful,” he said. “But I think everybody kind of understands what we need to do.”

Cleveland.com reporter Seth Richardson contributed to this story.

Read more cleveland.com stories:

First 2020 presidential debate will be in Cleveland

Effort to bring first 2020 presidential debate to Cleveland excluded city from planning process

How Cleveland Clinic and CWRU ended up landing the first presidential debate

Cleveland continues legacy of hosting presidential debate contests with 2020 announcement

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