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Law enforcement has 'delicate balance' at polls on election day, police chiefs say

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Courtesy Katherine StadlerBY: LUKE BARR, ABC NEWS

(NEW YORK) — As business owners in Washington, D.C., and New York City board up their storefronts to protect against potential election unrest, law enforcement from New Jersey to California is working to ensure that Americans who show up at the polls have their voice heard and their vote counted.

In the swing state of Ohio, Lucas County Sheriff John Tharp told ABC News that they are aware there could be issues percolating on Election Day and beyond, including possible concerns at polling places.

“We’re patrolling on the periphery of polling stations; we’re not placing people right at the polling site to oversee and watch and stand guard,” Tharp said. “We’re not doing that and there are obvious reasons why we’re not. It could be intimidating to some voters. Some voters would not appreciate that or feel that there’s something’s going on when there’s not.”

Concerns at the polls

Law enforcement officials ABC News spoke with across the country said that they have been working on plans with state and local election leaders. In Fairfax County, Virginia, Police Chief Edwin Roessler told ABC News that the police department works hand-and-hand with the commonwealth’s attorney to make sure that in the event something does happen at a polling place, election laws are followed.

“We want to be sure that what we’re doing is correct,” he said.

Roessler said that having well-trained poll workers is key to responding to issues that may arise.

“It’s training election officials and volunteers to be the eyes and ears and to understand what the election laws are and what they are not, and to have a triage system in place,” he said.

In California, Santa Monica Police Chief Cynthia Renaud told ABC News that voters will not see police officers “immediately outside of polling places.”

She told ABC News that early voting could end up alleviating some issues that might otherwise arise at polling places.

“It provides for less people in one place at one time,” said Renaud, who was just elected the president of the International Association of Chiefs of Police.

John Nesky, who serves as the police chief in Bowie, Maryland, told ABC News that police presence at the polls requires a “delicate balance.”

“It’s a delicate balance between presence and perceived intimidation, depending on how you feel about law enforcement. We have to really be careful about how we position ourselves and what kind of optics we put out or we provide,” he said, adding that their primary duties are ensuring traffic flow and keeping watch over ballot boxes.

In another battleground state, Texas, Frisco Police Chief David Shilson told ABC News that the role of law enforcement on Election Day is to build confidence in the process.

“Our role here in the election process is really just to maintain the integrity of the process and make sure that people have confidence in the process and that we’re there to mitigate issues that come up,” Shilson said. “Certainly, we will not have a constant presence at polling locations, because I know some people are intimidated by the uniform or they may find it intimidating.”

He said his officers are prepared — but that they don’t expect any problems to arise.

Potential post-election unrest

In Massachusetts, Gov. Charlie Baker announced on Monday that he was activating the state’s National Guard to address potential unrest after Election Day.

Law enforcement leaders say that there has been no credible information regarding threats of unrest following Election Day, but that they remain vigilant.

Elections are run by the states, so federal departments like the Department of Homeland Security have a limited role in the physical security of polling places.

“The American people can rest assured that this election will be decided by American voters,” said DHS spokesman Chase Jennings. “Working alongside our federal, state, local, tribal and territorial partners, the Department of Homeland Security is fully prepared regarding election night safety and security. To be clear, the Department of Homeland Security has limited authorities regarding physical security — our jurisdiction covers only federal property.”

In the Fairfax County, the police department’s action plan for election security includes contingencies for staying in a heightened posture for potentially a month.

“If we need to extend this mode of operation for days, weeks and or a month or so, we’re very flexible to do that,” Roessler said.

In New Hampshire, where there are a large number of militia groups, the New Hampshire Department of Public Safety reports no credible threats on or after Election Day.

“The New Hampshire Department of Safety will continue to work with the New Hampshire Secretary of State’s Office and the New Hampshire Department of Justice to support another successful election,” Department of Public Safety spokesman Paul Raymond told ABC News.

Renaud said that officials are focusing on a “whole of government” approach — working together to ensure safety and security.

“Law enforcement is certainly prepared nationwide to provide that that safety and security tomorrow and leading into the remainder of the week,” she said.

Although no law enforcement officials ABC News spoke with identified known credible threats leading up to Election Day, one official said that recent events in Michigan have made him extra wary.

In October, the FBI foiled a plot by extremists to kidnap and kill Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer.

Jared Maples, Director of the New Jersey Office of Homeland Security and Preparedness, told ABC News that the Michigan plot made him concerned.

“We protect everyone’s rights, whether it be the right to protest, the freedom of speech, et cetera,” Maples said. “But when it interrupts and becomes more than that, and starts moving from bias and hate crime into a potential attack scenario, that’s what we’re really focused on, stopping and interjecting to hopefully deter an attack. But I say all that to say we definitely are concerned with the outcome of this.”

“I know that we don’t assign one particular outcome. I think we’re seeing extremism really in multiple areas across the board.”

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