Federal military officials told the Minneapolis Police Department to delay notifying the public about helicopter training exercises they planned to conduct downtown in August — and then started the exercises before notices could go out.
That was the report from Minneapolis city officials, who were questioned Wednesday by City Council members about the unannounced training that spooked residents and left the council scrambling for answers.
On the evening of Aug. 18, Army MH-60 Blackhawk helicopters buzzed through Minneapolis and downtown St. Paul, kicking off several evenings of training by the Night Stalkers, a Fort Campbell, Ky.-based unit that specializes in nighttime operations.
Other, less visible military training operations were going on around the area at the same time, including at the city of Minneapolis’ water plant.
Assistant Chief Matt Clark of the Minneapolis Police Department said Police Chief Janeé Harteau and Mayor Betsy Hodges had been briefed on — and approved — the training exercises.
Clark said his department drafted a news release about the plans to be sent out Aug. 13, five days before the training. The Department of Defense, however, rejected the news release and told Minneapolis police they’d need to wait.
Clark said federal officials told the city it could share the news about the helicopter exercises at a specific time: the evening of Aug. 18, one day before the training was scheduled to begin.
Instead, the military abruptly changed its plans and directed the helicopters into the Twin Cities the same evening the news was to be released.
Almost immediately, worried residents began calling police — and their council members — to ask what was happening. Council members, who had not been told of the military’s plans, were stumped.
“People were really upset that first day,” Council Member Cam Gordon said in Wednesday’s meeting of the council’s public safety committee. “They were really confused that first day. I looked like a big idiot because I couldn’t say what’s going on. All I could say was: ‘No, I haven’t really been informed about this either,’ and ‘Yes, you’re absolutely right, two helicopters could have smashed into your high-rise apartment building with 3,000 people living in there and there could have been a horrible accident.’”
Clark told the council committee that Harteau has made it “very clear” she doesn’t intend to sign off on any future training exercises by the Night Stalkers.
Hodges said Wednesday that she and other officials believed this year’s training would be similar to the low-key exercises that took place two years ago. “In the future, should the [Department of Defense] request consent to train in Minneapolis, we will set the expectation that they provide clear notice to our residents,” the mayor said.
The committee voted to forward a recommendation to the full council that would direct city officials to bring future military training plans to the council before they were approved.