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Continued: Next! It's time for the RNC, as security ramps up in St. Paul

  • Article by: ANTHONY LONETREE , Star Tribune
  • Last update: August 29, 2008 - 11:37 PM

At a secret location, security officials will meet daily -- large video screens in front of them -- sharing surveillance data to be gathered during the Republican National Convention. ¶ Out in the streets, St. Paul police will field 3,500-plus officers -- a third of whom will make up mobile field force units dedicated to crowd control.

A mobile nuclear detection unit is at the ready, officials say, and the U.S. Coast Guard is set to deploy helicopters that can carry "ready assault forces" trained to drop from the sky to take on hostile threats, said Coast Guard spokesman Thomas Blue.

"They can move in quick and take care of business," he said.

As security operations go, Minnesota hasn't seen anything like it before.

The Secret Service, charged with designing and implementing the convention security plan, must be "prepared for the worst," spokesman Darrin Blackford said this week.

Critics, including the Coalition to March on the RNC and Stop the War, have accused authorities of exaggerating the possible threats.

In Denver, host of this week's Democratic National Convention, protesters also decried a "police state" after seeing officers in riot gear and atop rooftops.

Asked about the upcoming scene in St. Paul, police spokesman Tom Walsh said: "We're not going to discuss what it looks like. People are going to take away from it what they want to take away from it." But to suggest a police state, he said, "I think that's overstating the case."

The department, awarded a $50 million security grant from the federal government, will have at its disposal $330,000 in helmets, $1 million in chemical masks and $1.9 million in chemical irritants, according to plans approved by the City Council this month.

Will cops be in riot gear? "They have it available," Walsh said. "That's all I'm going to say."

Around the city, 100 cameras have been installed as part of a $3.4 million surveillance system that will feed images to police headquarters and to a multi-agency communications center being overseen by the Secret Service at the secret location outside the city.

In a sign of what may be to come, St. Paul police made two RNC-related arrests at an encampment set up by anti-poverty protesters on Harriet Island on Thursday night. About 60 officers -- half from the mobile field force -- closed in on the encampment, which protesters had dubbed "Bushville."

Asked whether the show of strength was justified, Chief John Harrington said Friday, "Oh, absolutely." At one point, he said, police counted about 40 protesters in the park. Then, he said, word came that more people might join the protesters' cause.

Harrington said he anticipates moves to break up crowds will be prefaced by explanations of why -- and to where -- people are being dispersed. But if projectiles are tossed, Harrington said, "our response is going to have to be more immediate."

Access to the convention hub and to the law enforcement center will be limited by fences and/or barricades, he said. On Friday night, workers began installing barricades near the convention area.

High-tech surveillance

In 2004, Blackford was an assistant detail leader assigned to protect Teresa Heinz Kerry, wife of Democratic presidential nominee John Kerry. Blackford attended the Democratic National Convention in Boston, he said, but that visit didn't last long.

To prepare for next week's convention, the Secret Service worked for 15 months with local, state and federal agencies, creating 17 subcommittees devoted to topics that included transportation and intelligence -- "really a learning experience," Blackford said.

Asked whether the Secret Service will have a say in how police officers are deployed, he said, "I would say it's a collaborative effort, but we're not going to tell St. Paul how to run their police department. We would serve as an adviser to them."

In another secret location, the FBI has set up an Intelligence Operations Center, at which agents will investigate tips from law-enforcement agencies, and a joint operations center, to be used only in response to a crisis.

Ralph Boelter, special agent in charge of the FBI's Minneapolis division, looking out at a virtually empty room, hopes that "we'll never activate this." About 49 laptop computers were spread out before seven rows of chairs, just in case the worst were to happen.

Staff writer Curt Brown contributed to this report.

Anthony Lonetree • 651-298-1545

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