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Police outside Trump rally keep a lid on high tensions

It started warm and fuzzy and ended raw and rancorous for the more than 200 police officers assigned to keep order outside First Niagara Center at Monday’s campaign rally for Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump.

Each time a contingent of a dozen or so city officers or state troopers filed in to either relieve other officers or bolster their ranks on Perry Street near the intersection with Washington Street, a cheer and applause went up from Trump supporters who numbered nearly 1,000 when the doors to the arena opened at 3:15 p.m.

“It’s nice to be appreciated,” one Buffalo officer said.

Many others felt the same way, smiling and occasionally bantering with those walking past them.

“We’re trying to show we are human, too,” said another officer, who jokingly asked two young women carrying a box of pizza whether he could inspect it.

Everyone had a good laugh.

But game faces were soon the order of business for officers as the number of anti-Trump protesters swelled, police officials said, to between 500 and 700 by late afternoon into the early evening. Even then, officers succeeded in keeping a buffer between the two sides.

At about 6 p.m., the protesters moved as close as they could to those heading into the rally from Washington Street across Perry.

“Leave your Christian values at the door,” “Trump loves the poorly educated” and “Somebody built a wall in Berlin and it didn’t go too well” were some of the milder catcalls.

With only several feet separating the two sides at the intersection, police ordered the protesters back about 10 feet so they could create a wider space defined by 5-by-6-foot sections of portable steel fencing.

A party atmosphere pervaded among the protesters who, for a while, had no Trump supporters to heckle. Drumbeats and chants filled the air. Some protesters hugged. Others caught up on old friendships.

Attention then shifted to police as Lt. Thomas R. Whelan started making preparations for when rallygoers started to leave the arena.

A handful of protesters initially refused to move onto the sidewalk on the east side of Washington. Officers with riot batons moved in and the protesters backed up as the portable fencing was put in place. Protesters objected and started screaming. One complained that he had been accosted and, for several minutes, shouted angrily at Whelan, who tried to offer an explanation.

The olive branch was not accepted.

The man cursed in Whelan’s face and shouted a barrage of negative remarks, demanding the lieutenant’s full name and badge number. When the fencing was in place, the man, from several feet away, continued yelling. Whelan ignored the remarks.

When the rally ended, Washington and nearby streets flooded with the more than 11,400 people who had come to see Trump. Some of the protesters called it a night, but a contingent of more than 100 shifted from Canalside to the Metro Rail tracks beneath the Niagara Thruway at Main and Exchange streets. Police arrested four of the protesters for trying to block the tracks. Two others had been arrested for refusing to leave First Niagara Center property.

Shouts of “black lives matter” and taunts about police receiving “overtime” filled the air at Main and Exchange, but officers succeeded in keeping the tracks cleared as train cars packed with departing rallygoers rolled by, many of them amused by the sight.

“People have their rights to speak and protest, but we were not going to tolerate any criminal activity,” Police Commissioner Daniel Derenda said Tuesday, offering praise for Monday’s event command staff: Inspector Joseph F. Strano, Capt. Mark Makowski, Lt. Jeffrey D. Rinaldo, and Whelan.

“The professionalism and training of all the officers involved really showed, even at times when it was intense,” Derenda said. “They really did a good job.”

Overtime costs for the police presence should be tallied within the next few days. City police were assisted by State Police, Erie County sheriff’s deputies and officers from the Niagara Frontier Transportation Authority and the Amherst and Town of Tonawanda departments.