WILLMAR, MINN. - The notices went up last week at Lakeview Apartments, a public-housing project with more than 150 apartments near downtown in this Kandiyohi County city.
Police would be using the complex as a training ground for their dogs, the posted fliers read, and they might enter the building without warning "at any hour during days, evenings or weekends."
After a civil rights group protested that the training would "forcefully convert the homes and living spaces of all Lakeview residents into a de facto police state," the city has suspended the program while it looks into it further.
In an e-mail to the American Civil Liberties Union of Minnesota (ACLU-MN), Willmar Mayor Marv Calvin said city staff "is planning on discontinuing this training until more information has been obtained.
"It has always been my intent to support our diverse community," Calvin wrote.
The ACLU sent a letter last week to 10 local officials protesting the police dog training at Lakeview, which is operated by the Kandiyohi County Housing and Redevelopment Authority.
Teresa Nelson, ACLU-MN's legal director, said the training exercises could infringe on residents' Fourth Amendment rights to be secure against unreasonable searches and seizures. She also raised the prospect of untrained dogs causing injury to residents.
"It just seemed really callous to use public housing residents for this, especially without their consent," Nelson said. "We would like to know more about the decision-making process.
"It's unclear what they intended and what kind of training was intended."
Police Chief Jim Felt said he was "extremely disappointed" by the ACLU's reaction to the training program, criticizing what he called the group's "misinformation and implications" in its letter and social media posts.
"The Willmar Police Department works very hard to provide fair and impartial law enforcement to all community members and to continually build positive relationships with those we serve," Felt wrote in an e-mail to the Star Tribune.
The mayor discussed the issue Monday night at a City Council meeting.
"I know that this [ACLU] letter is as concerning to you as it is to myself and the council members," he said.
"I would hope that when news like this comes out we would first find out the facts before jumping to conclusions," said Council Member Vicki Davis, who also sits on the city's the Human Rights Commission.
The housing authority did not respond to requests for comment.
The massive building on the shore of Lake Willmar, built in 1978, is clean and well-kept. Two wings branch off from a central section, with each floor containing 18 apartments. The interior decor is institutional, with gray tile floors and tan painted walls. Signs in the building are in both English and Spanish.
Many residents are elderly, although there are a fair number of younger people living there, including some college students, according to residents. All are low-income and pay rent on a sliding scale.
The police training has definitely been a topic of conversation in the building, Lakeview residents said. But many added that they don't see it as a problem.
Sue Forbes sat in her wheelchair in the lobby Monday, waiting for a bus to take her to a doctor's appointment.
"That's good for safety," said Forbes, who's lived in the building for 20 years.
Jason Pederson, who's lived at Lakeview for six years, said police and firefighters in the past have used the building and its stairwells for safety and evacuation exercises. At eight stories, Lakeview is the tallest building in town. Pederson said he doesn't have an issue with using the apartment complex to train police dogs.
Many residents assumed that the idea of the exercise is to sniff out drug users, although none said they view drugs as a widespread problem in the building.
"When the mouse knows the kitty comes, they run away," said Eli Cano, who often visits her friend Maria Tamez, a resident for five years. Tamez agreed that the training was "OK."
Several expressed concern. The program "is a little Big Brother-like," said one resident who declined to give his name. "I think anybody with half a brain cell knows exactly what their purpose is."
Richard Logsdon, a 10-year resident, supports the training, adding that he doesn't think he has much power to oppose it.
"Unfortunately, when you live in a government building, you don't have as many rights," he said.
Staff writer Alex Chhith contributed to this report.
John Reinan • 612-673-7402