CLEVELAND – At one particularly calm point this week, a group of police officers from out of state approached some from Cleveland.
“Everybody get your knives and cut a tire!” one of the visiting officers joked.
Do not take him literally.
It was a lighthearted moment during a week when the temperature was hot and the air was thick. As the delegates and VIPs converged in Cleveland for the Republican National Convention, so did protesters of all kinds: Second Amendment supporters. The Black Lives Matter movement. Stop Trump activists. Anarchists. Hate groups. And people who think police should be abolished.
Whatever their opinions, they expressed them loudly, and filled the last five days with speaking and chanting and shouting and marching – and with the occasional scuffle or goose chase.
There were a handful of arrests and injuries, the final numbers of which will be determined now that the convention is over.
But the real story is in what didn’t happen.
Despite months of apprehension tied to the GOP’s polarizing candidate, and despite a tightening of tensions in recent weeks after shootings by and of police in other states, everything seemed OK.
Heading into the final night of the convention on Thursday, when Donald Trump was to give his speech accepting the Republican nomination, Cleveland was big-problem free.
There were no mass arrests. No widespread violence. No riots. No terrorism.
Cleveland did well. Cleveland kept the peace. Which is why that officer joked that he had nothing to do.
The reality, of course, was much more serious. Cleveland and other northern Ohio police departments were joined by officers from around the country. In all, about 3,000 police officers worked shifts that often extended beyond 12 hours a day during the convention. They patrolled mostly on foot and – quite effectively and impressively – on bicycle, which allowed them to travel fast, maneuver through crowds, and form perimeters.
They had lighthearted moments; I saw an officer from Indiana stop to briefly play drums with a street band.
They had frustrating moments, most of which I wouldn’t know about, but some I can surmise, like when a pack of anarchists led a group of officers on a goose chase around the city’s Public Square.
But mostly, they had moments of controlled, almost stoic calm.
On the outside.
On the inside, though, something different was happening, both for the officers and their families. To state a fact you already know but people too often forget, police aren’t infallible. They, like us, have compassion and fear and families who love them. All of which came into play behind the imposing bulletproof vests and wraparound sunglasses of the officers who maintained the peace.
[GALLERY: Republican National Convention, Day Four]
“If I don’t call on the way home, I’m in trouble,” Officer Kevin Payne of the Cleveland Clinic’s police force told me Thursday morning. We were inside a temporarily gated area on the outskirts of downtown called Public Safety Central. The National Guard was manning the gates.
Payne was flanked by five other members of the Cleveland Clinic force. It was just after 7 a.m., and they were getting ready to patrol downtown on bike. His “brothers,” as he calls them, nodded. They all were hearing it from their wives, girlfriends, parents.
Officer Ryan Ball’s sister, who lives in California, saw a photograph of him on the job this week. He looked stern. That worried her; she’s used to her brother’s round face breaking into a happy-go-lucky grin. “She said in the 13 years I’ve been doing this, she’s never been afraid of me actually doing my job,” said Ball, whose girlfriend was “scared to death” and whose mom spent the week monitoring police dispatches and checking with her son if she heard something that sounded bad.
Officer Josh Hill’s fiancée is a nurse at the Cleveland Clinic which, like virtually every health-care facility in the area, was on standby to handle medical emergencies. “She’s checking every two hours,” he said, to see if "anything major is going on.”
We could keep going: Steven Jevnikar has been a police officer for 16 years, but the RNC job “was the first time my dad said he was actually worried about me.”
As Jevnikar revealed his dad’s concern, fellow officer Rich Howard nodded. So did Cpl. Jim Ruma. His wife tried not to pay much attention to the news this week; they have a 6-year-old at home who could get easily scared.
But he and his wife have an understanding.
“If it’s your time, it’s your time,” Ruma said. “We’re here to do a job. That’s what we’re paid to do.”
The job isn’t just what they do, though. It’s also in what they don’t do. And what the officers didn’t do helped define an ultimately safe week.
Several times, I saw anti-police protestors try to bait the cops. They screamed and swore and held signs vilifying law enforcement. Many of those signs specifically pointed out racist police, and so I asked one of the protesters exactly whom they are targeting: Bad cops, or all cops?
All of them, she told me. She’d rather have a society without police.
She was only one protester, but she wasn’t alone. Most of the police protests came during marches in which the cops were guarding the demonstrators.
“Honestly, it hurts,” Payne said. “This is what we chose to do, and we’re here to protect – no matter what they’re doing – them. And they’re telling us that we should be dead.”
But that didn’t define the week. They shook hands, smiled for pictures, and when they could, carried on conversation.
Every day, every hour, the officers were thanked by Clevelanders, by visitors, by Republican officials and, in a moment dense with irony, even some anti-police protesters.
“We gave them their freedom of speech, like we’re supposed to, and we kept the peace,” Payne said. “That’s what really counts.”