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RNC inquiry to focus on police encounters with public

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"The Police" shirt
A demonstrator wearing a t-shirt for the rock band "The Police" walks by a cadre of police in riot gear at a march for Youth Against War and Racism.
MPR Photo/Bill Alkofer

Former U.S. Attorney Tom Heffelfinger said he originally wanted his review team to investigate the far-reaching topics of air-space safety and hotel assignments for the convention delegates. 

But he said over the past few weeks, he has listened to a lot of passionate protesters and journalists who demanded answers about their encounters with the police. 

"We felt, based upon community interest, that we needed to narrow it much, much more. Focus it much, much more on the interaction with the community." 

St. Paul is paying $100,000 for the investigation led by Heffelfinger and former Assistant U.S. Attorney Andy Luger. The two promised the City Council they will conduct a broad but thorough investigation. 

They said they will study the actions of law enforcement during the four days of the convention, and how those actions stacked up to the plan that was in place prior to the RNC. The review will also analyze the city's preparations -- including the training of officers. 

And it will address the pre-emptive raids targeting activists in the days leading up to the convention. 

Luger stressed that the inquiry would be independent. He told the council the investigation was not designed to make people happy. 

"You're engaging us for our background, our experience, our judgment. Once you engage us to do the work that we do, no one can influence that work. No one can tell us where to go, where not to go, what to think, what to say, what to write," Luger said. 

But several City Council members said they hoped the commission would find answers to a lot of questions still stewing in the public's mind. 

Council member Lee Helgen said he wants to see an analysis of the command decisions made each day of the convention.

And he also wanted to know what kind of intelligence prompted the kind of security measures that some critics likened to a police state. More than 800 people were arrested during the RNC. 

"Here's where there was a disconnect for many of us who were on the outside of the bubble looking in. We didn't see this grave threat to the city being destroyed, as described by Sheriff Fletcher, or as the mayor said today, that the city was in danger. I think a lot of us saw ... the guys in riot gear and not understanding why they were deployed when we were told they wouldn't be," Helgen said. 

Heffelfinger said the review team would address all of those issues, while acknowledging that it may be difficult to retrieve some data that is considered confidential because of ongoing investigations.

He also said the commission will not delve into specific allegations against individuals. 

"We're going to look at it broadly, rather than looking at the activity of police 'Officer Smith' in his arrest of protester 'Mary Rowe'. That kind of case-by-case individual inquiry is outside the scope of our investigation, and we believe properly so, because those interactions are, will be, or may well be involved in litigation," Heffelfinger said. 

Council member and former police officer Dan Bostrom took issue with the direction of the council's line of questioning. His son, Matt Bostrom, is an assistant police chief who handled much of the RNC security planning.

The elder Bostrom referred to a story of a protester allegedly seen defecating into his hands. 

"Now, what do you think they were going to do with it? I know what they were going to do with it. They're going to try and rub -- and you're smiling, Mr. Helgen. But you know what they were going to do? They're going to try and rub that in the face of some police officer, and if they weren't protected, they would have done that. ... Anybody who would even consider not having them properly attired, it's just totally unresponsible and irrational, as far as I'm concerned. These folks, the bad guys, came to town to tear this town up, and without some of the efforts we saw, they would have," Bostrom said. 

Heffelfinger and Luger have asked three people with extensive backgrounds in law enforcement or the criminal justice system to sit on their commission.

Barry Feld is Heffelfinger's former law professor at the University of Minnesota and is considered an expert on juvenile justice; Mary Vukelich is a private investigator and a former Woodbury cop with a background in financial crimes; and Bob Hernz is the former public-safety director for Golden Valley.

At the council's urging, the attorneys agreed to add two more people to their team. The council asked that the new members represent average citizens and that at least one be a person of color.

Over the next two months, the review team will interview people about their encounters with the police and hold at least one public forum. The mayor's office has promised the group access to all city employees.

The commission plans to finish their report by Dec. 15. By that time, they said they hope to come up with some conclusions on what went right, what went wrong, as well as some recommendations for future host cities of political conventions. 

Heffelfinger, a Republican and strong supporter of U.S. Sen. Norm Coleman, said he won't step down from Coleman's so-called "Truth Squad" in light of recent scrutiny by a small group of critics. Last week at a public "listening session" that Heffelfinger attended, a couple of St. Paul residents asked him to step aside from the investigation, saying his staunch partisanship would prevent him from conducting an independent investigation of security surrounding the Republican convention. Luger, on the other hand, is a Democrat.

Police Chief John Harrington said in an interview he was confident that the outside review would determine that his department showed diligence in its planning and execution of security measures for the RNC. He said his mission was to see that the convention went on with peaceful demonstrations, minimal property damage and no serious injuries. "I think on balance, I think we did that," he said. "So I welcome the review."

Harrington said he knows of one person who has lodged an official RNC-related complaint with the department's internal affairs unit.