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Why Cleveland and Philly might want "riot insurance"

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With political conventions shaping up to be more and more like heavyweight wrestling matches, Cleveland has made what may be a smart decision, but undoubtedly an expensive one.

The city's Board of Control, which answers to its mayor, voted unanimously to spend an initial $1.5 million to get "law enforcement professional liability insurance," commonly known as protest or riot insurance, to cover its exposure at the Republican National Convention in July.

But $1.5 million doesn't come close to paying for this coverage. In fact, this amount only covers the expense of hiring insurance broker Aon Risk Services to find the city a policy, which reportedly could cost as much as $10 million. Aon has declined comment, saying it doesn't discuss its clients' affairs.

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Is such insurance worth it? New York City, which hosted the 2004 GOP convention, spent 10 years in court wrangling with civil liberties' lawyers who represented protesters who had allegedly been manhandled and pepper-sprayed by police during that convention. The case was ultimately settled in 2014: New York City paid $18 million to the protesters and their lawyers, in addition to $16 million for its own legal fees.

It's unlikely the situation will be better this year, particularly at the GOP convention. Likely nominee Donald Trump had earlier alluded to "riots" if he's denied the nomination, which now doesn't seem at all possible given he's the last Republican candidate left. But increasingly violent anti-Trump protesters are following the billionaire along the campaign trail, notably now in California.

And Trump isn't Cleveland's first and only source of tension. It saw riots after a city police officer was acquitted in the shooting of Tamir Rice, who was playing with a toy gun in a city park. Cleveland wound up paying the Rice family $6 million.

So is the cost of hosting a political convention worth it these days? The host city not only stands to gain exposure but fills up its hotel rooms, restaurants and stores for a week.

But there's a downside. The Republican National Committee won't absorb any of the costs of keeping its conventioneers safe. Cleveland has put aside $2.5 million to pay for the convention in general, and while cities that host political conventions generally get a $50 million federal grant, it's not clear how much can be used to pay for insurance or to reimburse the city's legal expenses if people sue.

Cleveland, which barely managed to balance its 2016 budget with some belt-tightening, will vote on a city income tax increase later this year or next year.

It's easy to say, as civil liberties lawyers do, that the police should be better trained and more restrained. But as any cop will tell you, reacting to a violent confrontation -- particularly when your antagonists include well organized rock and bottle throwers in the middle of a peaceful demonstration -- carries its own peril.

Incidents where police have overreacted, now routinely captured on cell phone cameras, are leverage for plaintiffs' lawyers, who are happy to tell you 90 percent of those arrested in the 2004 New York demonstrations had their cases dismissed. As a result, cities have discovered that it's smarter to get insurance -- and settle.

Philadelphia, which hosts the Democratic convention a week after the Republicans meet in Cleveland, won't comment on whether it will take out protest insurance against the possibility of riots. Like Cleveland, Philly is getting a $50 million grant. It says it plans to use the money for "staffing and equipment."

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