Phoenix leaders pledge to keep Trump rally safe; some schools, businesses to close early

PHOENIX – Local law enforcement leaders, school officials and businesses are bracing for President Donald Trump’s visit to Arizona on Tuesday, with public officials saying they are calmly working to avoid violent clashes between supporters and counter-protesters expected to clog downtown Phoenix.

Nearby schools and more than a dozen local businesses are closing early Tuesday to avoid traffic or other problems, but a downtown group said most businesses were expected to handle it like any other day.

A phalanx of public officials, including Phoenix Mayor Greg Stanton and public safety leaders for Phoenix, Maricopa County and the state of Arizona, struck reassuring tones Monday about an event that is drawing international attention. A downtown Phoenix group estimated about 25,000 supporters and demonstrators are expected.

“To those attending the rally and outside, we want to give you every opportunity to express your First Amendment rights, no matter what your opinion happens to be,” Stanton said at a news conference. But people have “to be civil, respectful and peaceful. That is the Phoenix way.”

Stanton had urged Trump to delay his visit, coming soon after violence in Charlottesville, Virginia during a white nationalist march that left one protester dead and several others injured.

Frank Milstead, director of the Arizona Department of Public Safety, joined other public officials who said they were “well prepared” to keep people safe during President Donald Trump’s first visit to Arizona since he was elected. (Photo by Maddy Ryan/Cronkite News)

Rumors rumbling that Trump will consider pardoning former Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio have fed fears the rally could erupt into violence. Trump was criticized for his response that “both sides” were responsible for the violence.

Arpaio, a fervent Trump fan who was convicted of criminal contempt of court in July for violating a federal judge’s order to stop targeting Latinos in traffic stops, would “welcome” a pardon, his attorney Jack Wilenchik said by email.

Trump told Fox News last week he is considering pardoning Arpaio.

“He has done a lot in the fight against illegal immigration. He’s a great American patriot and I hate to see what has happened to him,” Trump said in the Fox News interview.

Such a move would draw the ire of immigration advocates and leading Democrats.

Arizona Congressman Ruben Gallego, at another news conference Monday, said a pardon would insult justice.

“This would be a very extraordinary pardon,” Gallego said, adding that Arpaio hasn’t been sentenced yet. Arpaio could receive up to six months in prison at his scheduled Oct. 5 sentencing.

“I think a pardon for Joe Arpaio is a pardon for white supremacy,” Jess O’Connell, chief executive of the Democratic National Committee, said at the news conference.

The Phoenix Elementary School District is canceling after-school programs and Phoenix Union High School District is releasing students early from nearby schools, including Bioscience and Central high schools, to avoid traffic snarls or other problems as people show up for the 7 p.m. rally at the Phoenix Convention Center, school officials said.

“We want to avoid safety issues should protests occur,” said Sara Bresnahan, spokesperson for the Phoenix elementary school district. “We don’t know what to expect, but we know the Phoenix Police Department and Sheriff (Paul) Penzone’s team are working hard to insure everyone’s safety. If roads are closed for safety or by protesters, we want to be sure our families are already safe in their homes.”

Map by Tynin Fries

Executives for Arizona Public Service urged employees at its downtown Phoenix headquarters to leave work hours before the rally to avoid traffic congestion and because of uncertainty over whether the rally will be peaceful.

“We are asking employees after midday to work from home,” APS spokesperson Jim McDonald said.

Doors will open at 4 p.m., three hours before the rally starts. When Trump visited Arizona seven times before the November 2016 presidential election, supporters and opponents lined up hours before the scheduled start time. Tuesday marks Trump’s first visit to Arizona as president.

Andre Bynum, downtown supervisor for Yellow Cab, said safety is on his mind. He’s alerted his supervisor about his action plan if trouble arrives.

“I said to him, ‘if it starts to get dirty and nasty with protesters, I’m out of here, I’m not waiting for permission to leave’,” Bynum said.

“I’m not scared or fearful. I think the police will keep it under control,” Bynum said, saying he’s not taking sides. But he notes people are legally allowed to openly carry guns in Arizona.

“I think the thing that is more of a threat is that they’re allowed to carry arms,” Bynum said. “In other states, you don’t see people strapped with arms like I’ve seen on TV with the people here. And that’s the only thing that gets me a little leery because who knows which one will snap.”

Stanton did not outline how the city would handle the rally logistics other than saying some streets will be closed, but Phoenix Police Chief Jeri Williams said the city has handled major events before, including the Super Bowl and a showdown at a Phoenix mosque between Second Amendment advocates and Muslim supporters that had the potential for violence but remained peaceful.

Williams said police presence will be at a “maximum,” reading from a statement she released last week. “We do expect a lot of activity in the downtown area but we are prepared to minimize the impact to area businesses and residents.”

An executive for Downtown Phoenix Inc. said the group feels reassured.

“There’s been a steady decline of anxiety in downtown Phoenix,” said R.J. Price, vice president of marketing and events. “I think the city has promoted calm throughout this and I couldn’t be prouder of the city.”

Sgt. Daniel Macias of the Arizona State University Police Department also said there will be extra ASU police presence on the downtown Phoenix campus Tuesday to make sure students, faculty and staff are safe.

A spokesperson for the University of Arizona’s medical school said neither the rally nor demonstrations are expected to affect the Phoenix campus but said traffic congestion could spur schedule changes.

“Situations like this are typically very fluid and will continue to evolve right up until the time of the event and beyond,” said Allison Otu of the UA College of Medicine-Phoenix.

Edward Maguire, an ASU professor who specializes in policing and violent crime, will be sending a team to observe the dynamics of the event – only as social scientists, not as participants.

“From a policing perspective, these types of events are very complex and require a lot of advance planning, training, leadership, and sensitivity,” Maguire, a professor at the school of criminology and justice, said in an email. “Agencies that rely on the right mix of strategies and tactics can do a lot to prevent or minimize outbreaks of violence.”

“Regardless of where you fall on the political spectrum, the nation is clearly in a state of crisis right now,” Maguire says. “Protesters will show up with deeply felt viewpoints and many will express those viewpoints passionately. Let’s just hope this turns out to be an event filled with lawful and peaceful First Amendment expression and that these emotions do not spill over into violence.”

Reporters Jesse Stawnyczy and Shawna Truong contributed to this story.