As a Wednesday night concert by the popular protest band Rage Against the Machine drew to a close, Minneapolis police were waiting, ready to kick months of tactical training into play.

If RNC protesters were going to make news in Minneapolis, police officials predicted, this would be the moment.

When word of the concert's conclusion squawked over Minneapolis police Sgt. Darah Westermeyer's radio at 10:37 p.m., he didn't know if the 13,000 pumped up fans would leave downtown without causing trouble or challenge hundreds of anxious officers in riot gear who had been in place around Target Center for an hour.

Although some concertgoers later complained of "police overkill,'' and the 800-plus arrests recorded during convention week has drawn criticism, authorities said the show of force was purposeful and appropriate.

Like the response at similar protest events in St. Paul, there was a strong military feel to the strategy. Protesters said such tactics and the large police presence at protests were meant to intimidate and squelch free speech.

But Capt. Ed Frizell, a commanding officer at the Target Center concert said, "If we need to protect the city, we will go hard."

Viewed from the inside, it was clear that police in both cities took the reported threats to disrupt the GOP convention seriously.

Minneapolis and St. Paul police allowed a Star Tribune reporter and photojournalist to be embedded with mobile field force units for two days. Similar requests for access by journalists at the Democratic convention in Denver were denied.

Much of the behind-the-scenes activity was mundane and tedious.

In Minneapolis, the day began at a huge command post in the lower level of the downtown Leamington parking ramp at 11th Street and 2nd Avenue S. Officers played cards and chess, watched television and checked e-mails as they waited for assignments.

On Wednesday, Westermeyer's officers were assigned to patrol several blocks behind the Target Center during the Rage concert. Earlier in the week they had helped arrest protesters near Shepard Road in St. Paul. Two hours before the 7:30 show Westermeyer's officers, along with other platoons, Hennepin County sheriff deputies and paramedics clustered at the noisy 5th Street Metro Transit station.

Some put on their full riot gear, which includes helmets, wood batons, chemical irritants and protective padding. Officers jokingly refer to themselves as "turtles" once they don the gear because the padding does shape them like the animal.

Before the concert, officers searched the area for items protesters might throw at them or use to damage property. They found iron bars, piles of bricks and buckets full rocks that "weren't there by accident," Frizell said, but it's unclear if anybody was planning to use them.

Officers were clearly antsy as people left Target Center, pounding their batons on the ground or against their shin pads. Some yelled profanities while others offered compliments.

When the call came a few minutes later to support officers at 1st Avenue, the officers quickly lined up in formation and marched to the spot. Frizell barked out orders, pacing with confidence among his officers.

The tense standoff eventually ended and the officers moved to Hennepin Avenue and 7th Street to address new problems. With adreneline still pumping, they returned to their staging area. But then Frizell frantically yelled at the officers to run to their vehicles and head toward a new trouble spot at Marquette and 8th Street.

Squads screeched to a halt. Officers piled out and sprinted a few blocks to where dozens of people were quietly seated on a sidewalk, hands clasped on their heads. Within minutes, Westermeyer and his platoon were as calm as if their shift had just started.

The months of preparation appeared to be pay off. Officers had practiced military formations, drilled with mounted and bike patrols, and worked on how to arrest a person who is resisting. City and county attorneys explained the requirements to arrest for disorderly conduct, rioting and unlawful assembly.

More than 1,000 officers spent several days at the Dakota and Washington County fairgrounds playing out every conceivable protest scenario. Commanders worked on "how to move the chess pieces around because protest scenes make you constantly shift gears," said Lt. Mike Sullivan.

St. Paul police were similarly prepared.

As Monday's opening day protests neared, more than 60 vans were lined up in the parking lot at Sears department store on Rice Street. They had been rented by various police departments because the sliding doors make it quicker for officers to exit. The larger interior makes it easier for officers to move when they wear bulky riot gear.

Cmdr. Steve Frazer, who has been with the department for 18 years, headed one of St. Paul's mobile divisions. His officers monitored the end of the parade route (which he called "ground zero") and responded to any trouble in the city throughout the day.

Within minutes of the protest's kickoff, Frazer received word that 30 anarchists were handing out gas masks at the State Capitol. Then came a report that 40 people on the third floor of the Labor and Professional Center a half-block away "were not friendly to police," but he had no indication they were going to do anything.

Later he was told of the possibility of a bio attack, meaning protesters might throw feces or urine at officers. When Frazer heard rocks and bottles were being thrown at officers on W. 7th Street, several of his platoons responded to the area. Frazer said deployment of tear gas was almost ordered.

His day ended on Shepard Road, scooping up dozens of protesters that vandalized downtown. Before that incident, St. Paul officer Don Hase said he had confidence in the way officers would handle anything that was thrown their way.

"But I was at the Tet Offensive in Vietnam," he laughed. "This was just a little tamer."

David Chanen • 612-673-4465