DULUTH – The city announced a policy dictating when police officers can wear protective riot gear, the conclusion to a monthslong process that allowed the public to weigh in on the law enforcement agency’s new crowd-control protocol.
Starting in February, police will use a four-tiered system to respond to civil disturbances. Only with threats of violence to people or property can the chief deem a situation worthy of a Level Four response and instruct officers to don riot gear.
Talk of purchasing new gear to upgrade and replace the city’s old and mismatched “crowd-control protective equipment” — which in Duluth now consists of a ballistic helmet, a clear shield, a 36-inch baton and protectors for officers’ chests, groins, shins and arms — has drawn controversy locally since late 2017, when the almost $84,000 expense listed on the city budget caught residents’ attention.
In response to public outcry, city leaders tasked Duluth’s Citizen Review Board (CRB) with developing rules for when riot gear can be deployed, as well as proper processes for doing so.
“I hope it’s never deployed. I hope it gets old and gathers dust and is only used for training,” said Carl Crawford, Duluth’s human rights officer. “But as a city, to not have it is a mistake.”
A committee of about 20 — including police officers, City Council members and local activists — met monthly for a year to draft the policy line by line, looking to other cities as examples. On Feb. 3, the group will present its recommendations to Duluth Police Chief Mike Tusken, who has said the department will adopt them.
The policy includes provisions requiring police to notify the CRB when riot gear is deployed, similar to the agency’s existing use-of-force policy. It also lays out actions police must take before forcibly dispersing a crowd, such as issuing a warning, and bans the use of canine units, sound or water cannons, firearms and other weapons for crowd-control purposes.
Archie Davis, chairman of Duluth’s CRB, said that while living in Chicago and Milwaukee he’d seen clashes between police and protesters turn violent.
“I’m an African-American who still has the same fears as many of the others out there,” he said. “Had we not drafted this policy, I wouldn’t feel relief. I’m proud of this. These voices were heard.”
Discussions erupted in Duluth during a decade fraught with deadly encounters around the country between police and black men, including the 2016 shooting of Philando Castile in Falcon Heights and the 2014 shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo. Both prompted large-scale protests that helped spur national conversations about the proper use of police force.
When the City Council met in October 2018 to approve the equipment purchase, protesters chanted so loudly that council members had to shut down the meeting’s public comment section and vote by a show of hands.
“Their fears are that it’s going to be used against them and not for them,” said Renee Van Nett, a City Council member who represents Duluth’s Fourth District, where more people of color and lower-income residents live.
But Van Nett insists the purchase will make the city safer, not more dangerous, for those exercising their First Amendment rights.
Recent frays between police and protesters have created an atmosphere of “more angst and critique and criticism of policing in the last five years” than Tusken said he saw in his prior 28 years as an officer. The lifelong Duluthian recalled the 2016 slaying of five Dallas officers who were killed by a sniper during a demonstration against fatal police shootings.
“I think it’s very, very unfair that police departments are judged by the poor conduct of a relative few,” Tusken said.
To go without the equipment, which can outfit 125 officers, would be a “dereliction of my duty as a police chief should there ever be civil unrest in Duluth,” Tusken added. “The cops need to be safe to keep the community safe.”
Duluth police last wore their gear in 2012, when white supremacists and counterprotesters clashed outside City Hall.
Though Duluth cannot employ this robust, time-consuming process to make every city or police policy, Crawford said, he thinks with particular controversies like riot gear, it is important to create transparency and accountability.
Especially these days, he added, when he thinks the country is seeing “a different, emboldened kind of hate.”