Police Chief Karl Turner said the FBI notified his department a few months ago about the potential for protests and counterprotests at the TriPride parade and festival.
“Initially, the FBI came to us with some intelligence they had, and I think that's a great example of your federal and local law enforcement agencies working together,” Turner said.
“They kind of informed us that they had some things on their radar that they wanted to talk to us about, and that's really what sparked the whole thing as far as our level of planning and level of security.”
Despite the cooperation, Turner said it was still impossible to know exactly how many protesters or counterprotesters might show up.
“There's a lot of unknowns because what you see on social media is, of course, part of the intelligence, but that's only part of it. We didn't know the size of the groups that might come protest (or) the size of groups who would be counterprotesting,” Turner said.
“I think you have to prepare for a situation like what happened in Charlottesville, (Virginia). We didn't want another Charlottesville. We wanted to be prepared to manage any protest or counter-protest, make sure we had enough officers to do that and have a peaceful exercise of First Amendment rights.”
Although police cordoned off an entire parking lot for those who might oppose the pro-LGBTQ event, it remained empty for much of the festivities. When the festival concluded, only half a dozen or so protesters actually showed up with signs and loud speakers, and police kept heavy surveillance on them.
Turner said approximately 85 officers from his department worked the event, not to mention the other 155 or so officers representing other Tennessee law enforcement agencies that came to assist.
“They were all very professional, and I think they represented their individual agencies very well. Because like I said, it's hard to go into another city, know the location and be able to answer questions and just help manage something like that. We couldn't have done it without them, without our partners in law enforcement, in fire and EMT,” Turner said.
Additionally, the city’s Marking and Communications Department, led by Keisha Shoun, worked closely with police before and during the event to disseminate information to festival-goers and the general public.
“Keeping everyone informed of the logistics was incredibly important not only for a safe and successful event but also for downtown merchants, Transit patrons, and anyone driving in the area Saturday,” Shoun said.
As of Monday, Turner did not have an estimated cost for securing the event. He said his officers have yet to turn in their time sheets for the pay period covering the festival. The other personnel, including the Tennessee Highway Patrol’s helicopter, were all paid for by the agency they represented, not the Johnson City Police Department.
Not long after festival organizers gained approval in March to host the event, Turner said his department began planning security, which included a visit to the Knoxville Police Department.
One of those recommendations involved having a closed event with a variety of access points.
“One thing that we were very interested in from the beginning was having a closed event where you'd have to pass through some access points and not be allowed to bring weapons into that closed-off area or that venue,” he said.
The entire festival grounds, encompassing Founders Park and much of downtown Johnson City, had five access points where thousands of attendees were screened through metal detectors. Prohibited items included containers, purses, bags, backpacks, umbrellas and selfie sticks, among others.
“We felt that was important, due to the intelligence we had that there was going to be a counter-protest group and a protest group. So we were concerned about them bringing weapons in,” Turner said.
Most of the attendees asked about the heavy police presence were pleased it was there.
“It put everybody at ease I think. The Johnson City Police Department really stepped up and wanted to make sure this event was safe and secure,” TriPride President Kenn Lyons said.
Attendee Shelby Whitehead called the police presence “incredible.”
Although Niko Armstrong said she had a good experience with the police, she said, “I think that it's a very fine line with the security just because I know there are a lot of people, especially (transgender) people and (transgender) people of color, that are very wary of the police being here.”
Others, like Beth Sluder, thought the security was excessive and questioned why this downtown festival garnered such a large police presence and others do not.
“I feel that little concern was given on behalf of the police forces as to the impact their excessive presence could cause for a community that is historically abused and disenfranchised by law enforcement. I understand that there were threats — our community lives under threats every day of our lives ... While I do not feel that there was malicious intent on behalf of the police, impact is far greater than intent and the impact was that many attendees at a peaceful festival felt anything but peaceful,” Sluder said.
All in all, just two arrests were made during TriPride and both were for public intoxication.
Turner said his department is already preparing to send officers to help Elizabethton police and the state park system secure the white nationalist rally expected to take place on Sept. 29 at Sycamore Shoals State Historic Park.