Suburban police chiefs around the Twin Cities metro are buying more riot gear as civil disturbances both nationally and closer to home have them questioning their preparedness.
Protests in the Twin Cities have not escalated to the scale seen in the past year in Baltimore or Ferguson, Mo. However, several recent Black Lives Matter rallies are prompting some police departments to reassess their tactical equipment.
Growing police use of riot gear and other military-styled equipment is being criticized by some who say it does more to antagonize than keep the peace. But as some departments stock up on new equipment, chiefs in the metro say it’s foolish to not err on the side of protecting officers in a riot.
“A good chief is going to assess the needs of departments based on changes in the nature of the climate out there,” West St. Paul Police Chief Bud Shaver said. “We’re thinking people are kind of upset about things and more willing to get whipped up about things. So it’s making us say, ‘What do we have?’ A lot of us are looking in the basement going, ‘Where is this old stuff?’ ”
South St. Paul and Mendota Heights are the latest departments to successfully lobby for new gear. South St. Paul Police Chief William Messerich recently gained approval to use unspent salary money on $34,000 worth of helmets, rifle protection vests and shields. Mendota Heights received the go-ahead last month to use more than $15,000 from a city civil defense fund to outfit each officer with shielded helmets and bodysuits.
High-profile conflicts elsewhere were referenced in both departments’ pitches as they noted the possibility they could be called to help if a riot broke out in the metro. In his proposal to the City Council, Mendota Heights Police Chief Mike Aschenbrener wrote that Minnesota law enforcement was not “equipped to handle an event like Baltimore or Ferguson.”
Protection vs. escalation
Being called to assist Bloomington’s December 2014 Black Lives Matter protest at the Mall of America was a wake-up call for Hastings Police Chief Bryan Schafer.
“When I checked in our supplies … it looked like a few mid-’70s-model helmets,” Schafer said. “Nobody in the department had a helmet or any kind of gear issued to them. I got on it right away.”
Using donated funds, Schafer bought $3,400 worth of batons and helmets — a set for each officer. In Eagan, the Police Department pulled together $10,000 for 50 new helmets last year.
Inver Grove Heights Police Chief Larry Stanger said he will soon talk to the City Council about buying new equipment.
Today, Stanger said, when other departments call for assistance, his message is: “We can help with outer perimeter, but we’re not sending our people out for the front line. Not without the proper equipment. That’s not safe at all.”
Bloomington Deputy Police Chief Mike Hartley said he didn’t want officers’ appearances during the December protest to dictate the story of that day, but police eventually donned helmets when it came time to escort or arrest some among the 3,000 protesters.
“I wouldn’t have outfitted the officers any other way,” Hartley said. “We look at the role and job of a police officer in delivering public safety. Someone eventually is going to be offended by that.”
Nekima Levy-Pounds, a law professor and president of the Minneapolis NAACP chapter, was at the protest and is among those facing misdemeanor charges connected to the protest. She also attended protests in Ferguson, Mo., a month earlier.
She called the armored police response at the Mall of America a “gross overreaction” that added intensity.
“It deepens the divide between law enforcement organizations and citizens when we really should be building bridges between the two groups,” Levy-Pounds said.
In a September report assessing the police response to the August 2014 demonstrations in Ferguson, the U.S. Department of Justice said many community members perceived police protective equipment as antagonistic.
“It feels like we are fighting a war,” one resident said.
The report recommended staging armored officers out of sight and telling the public that they may be seen wearing the gear for their safety.
When the Republican National Convention (RNC) came to St. Paul in 2008, many departments received grant money to buy equipment still used today.
Police envisioned a heavy presence but “with lower visibility and less of a reliance on riot gear,” according to a 2009 report by a review commission.
That changed when confronted by “violent anarchist behavior,” the report said.
While the commission found the gear and use of force mostly appropriate, it said police should have prepared the public for the possibility of violence and seeing armored officers.
As Black Lives Matter took to St. Paul streets in recent months, police patrolled nearby on horseback or on bicycles. There were no helmet-wearing officers in sight during the march to the State Fair or when protesters shut down the Green Line before the Vikings home opener.
Rashad Turner, lead organizer for Black Lives Matter St. Paul, said seeing officers in riot gear would have perpetuated an “us vs. them climate.”
“If they’re out there in that type of gear, for me, personally, it speaks to their desire to escalate things vs. de-escalating them,” Turner said.
Most of an officer’s response to a large-scale protest can be done in a regular uniform, said Ramsey County Chief Deputy Jack Serier, who was among lead planners for the RNC.
“If you start putting a cordon of people in these hardened suits, if that’s where you start out at, you automatically start to create a tension in the air that wasn’t there,” Serier said.
Ramsey County Sheriff Matt Bostrom, who coordinated the St. Paul police response during the RNC, sees bicycles as a less-menacing middle ground that still lets police deal with rapidly developing situations.
Turner agreed the bike patrols that recently accompanied marchers appeared much less threatening than helmets and sticks.
“They were out there with us,” Turner said. “The more we can collaborate between the community and police, the better.”