Training in downtown Minneapolis for urban warfare this week, Black Hawk military helicopters circled low over the Stone Arch Bridge, hovered next to the Fifth Street Towers and landed on the roof of the Federal Reserve building.
The helicopters belong to the U.S. Special Operations Command, an elite and secretive military unit based in Florida that is winding up two weeks of training in Minneapolis and St. Paul on Saturday. Police in both cities warned the public ahead of time, but the exercise still produced plenty of gawking and talking from those on the ground.
Minneapolis City Council Member Elizabeth Glidden saw the copters flying low in the sky while she was taking an evening walk by the Washburn water tower. "They were awfully close," she said.
But the aerial spectacle has been only the most public part of the training.
"The closest thing I can compare it to is SWAT training," Ken McGraw, a deputy public affairs officer with the Special Operations Command, said in an e-mail from Florida. "The training includes tactics used in close-quarters battle -- small-unit engagement at short ranges in confined areas, building- and room-clearing operations; dynamic entry -- breaching doors or walls with explosives."
McGraw said that participants are not using live ammunition.
The training is being conducted in collaboration with the Minneapolis and St. Paul police.
"We arrange the venues and provide security," Minneapolis police Sgt. Bill Palmer said.
While the special ops teams are not training local cops, they are giving both departments access to the "bad guys," civilians paid by Special Operations Command to play the enemy.
Under the arrangement Palmer witnessed last week, the special ops soldiers would play out a confrontation scenario, conduct a debriefing, then turn the venue over to the police, who ran the scenario themselves and did their own debriefing.
The Twin Cities area was not chosen for any particular reason, other than that it offers a different setting with different buildings, and the training is not for a specific contingency, McGraw said. Palmer noted that similar exercises have been conducted in Los Angeles, Chicago and Boston.
Numerous people have posted video of the helicopters online.
Scott Prudden, a general contractor, shot video of them from the balcony of his townhouse on West River Parkway. He watched three Black Hawks close in on the Federal Reserve and hover over the bank's parking lot, and saw four smaller helicopters land on the bank's roof.
He saw soldiers in their fatigues sitting in the open-doored helicopters. "We waved to them," he said. They did not wave back.
"You could tell these guys were professionals," said Steve Reeves, an attorney who shot video while working late in the Wells Fargo Bank building. "It was really controlled. They all hovered for the same amount of time. They all took the same flight path."
Reeves said he was "very happy" to see the copters in Minneapolis conduct the exercise. "I support our military," he said.
But Melissa Hill, a Minneapolis records clerk, was unnerved. She saw the Black Hawk helicopters on Monday night flying in the vicinity of East Hennepin and Central Avenues around 8 p.m. On the Hennepin Avenue Bridge, she shot video of the helicopters as they swirled over the Mississippi River and the Stone Arch Bridge and past people standing on the roof of the Federal Reserve building.
"To me it's really frightening," she said. "Military copters flying around in our airspace in an urban setting -- it kind of conditions people to accept a police state."
Federal Reserve: No comment
Patti Lorenzen, a public affairs spokeswoman for the Federal Reserve, was cryptic when asked about the exercise. "The law enforcement activity in the vicinity of the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis is part of previously announced routine training exercises," she said in an e-mail. "These exercises were scheduled to occur between 7 p.m. and midnight during the week of Aug. 27, 2012. We have no further comment."
The Special Operations Command, based at MacDill Air Force Base near Tampa, Fla., operates in 75 countries, often in clandestine operations, although they are most associated with warfare in Iraq, Afghanistan and Somalia. President Obama has requested more money for the unit, which uses personnel from all four branches of the U.S. Armed Forces and may have as many as 25,000 troops, according to reports in the Washington Post.
Randy Furst • 612-673-4224