By Saundra Amrhein
TAMPA, Florida (Reuters) - While Tropical Storm Isaac threatens to disrupt next week's Republican National Convention, it is another sort of tempest for which law enforcement officials have spent months preparing.
They are working to make sure nothing goes awry when some 15,000 activists show up along with 50,000 delegates and visitors at the convention in downtown Tampa.
Tampa police say they have one message for the 4,000 statewide law enforcement personnel helping them out: conversation before confrontation.
"We're going into it as a community-oriented service," Tampa Police Assistant Chief John Bennett said during a public forum held by the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida.
In an effort to soften their image and keep cool, officers will wear khaki uniforms while working near the convention at the Tampa Bay Times Forum. Their focus will be on crowd control and traffic, and helping people get around.
"We've said all along that, by far, the majority of protesters are law-abiding people, and a small percentage are bent on disrupting the event," Tampa Police spokeswoman Laura McElroy said.
The city is well prepared if protests get disruptive.
In addition to paying for the new uniforms and extra personnel, it has tapped into nearly $50 million in federal security funds for an armored SWAT truck, a dozen all-terrain-vehicles, riot gear, a fleet of bicycles and surveillance cameras.
Last Friday bricks were discovered on a downtown rooftop next to a stenciled number "99" and the image of Guy Fawkes, a 17th-century bomb plotter who has become a revolutionary symbol used by the Occupy and Anonymous movements, groups opposed to excesses on Wall Street and Internet censorship.
Authorities suspect someone stockpiled the bricks with the intention of hurling them down onto traffic or pedestrians to disrupt events surrounding the convention.
FIVE SUPER BOWLS
Tampa has hosted its share of big parties - from the Super Bowl in 2009, to the annual Gasparilla pirate-themed parades that draw throngs to Bayshore Boulevard, to the weekly Friday night revelry in the nightclub district known as Ybor City.
But nothing compares to what awaits the region in the coming days.
"This is the largest event in the area's history," McElroy said, adding that her chief has likened it to holding five Super Bowls at the same time.
Tensions between protesters and the city have flared over preparations in the weeks leading up to the convention.
A new city ordinance has designated a parade route and public viewing area for protesters within the 8-square-mile (21-square-km) "Event Zone." But that viewing area is far from the Forum and camping is prohibited in all city parks.
Some demonstrators have pulled required permits -- groups like March Against Voter Suppression and others protesting student, labor, immigration and health care issues.
Others like Occupy Tampa, a branch of the Occupy Wall Street movement, are working around the ordinance.
Movement members have found private property and set up camps outside the Event Zone in West Tampa at Voice of Freedom Park, owned by strip club mogul Joe Redner.
Protesters advocating on behalf of the homeless, the poor and the unemployed have leased land a mile north of the Forum. They have dubbed it "Romneyville," after Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney, and are planning to house more than 300 protesters there in tents.
The ordinance also restricts the kinds of items that can be carried into the Event Zone. On that list: rope, chain, wire, glass bottles and helium balloons.
Masks covering faces are also forbidden in the Event Zone except within the public viewing area, or along the parade route for protesters and other officially registered groups.
The Secret Service is barring weapons in the Forum, but Tampa has failed in its attempt to get the state to prevent residents with concealed weapons permits from carrying firearms into the Event Zone.
That fact prompted a sarcastic comment from a man in the ACLU public forum audience: "So I can't bring a balloon, but I can bring a gun."
Mike Pheneger, president of the ACLU of Florida, said what might spell the most trouble is a section of the ordinance that puts the protest site out of view of convention events at the Forum.
"No one's going to be able to see you," Pheneger said of the protesters. "Mostly, you are going to be demonstrating for yourself and talking to yourself.
"That may cause some groups to react differently. How the police react will determine if this is a successful First Amendment exercise or chaos."
(Editing by Xavier Briand)