Sheriff, police department clashed over RNC security

Sheriff Bob Fletcher points to a wall of mug shots
Investigators with the Ramsey County Sheriff's office have devoted an entire room to analyzing the events that occurred on Sept. 1, the first day of the Republican convention. Sheriff Bob Fletcher points to a wall filled with the mug shots of individuals arrested on that day.
MPR Photo/Laura Yuen

More than 800 people were arrested during the four-day convention in September, and at least $69,000 in property was damaged. Documents obtained by MPR show that sheriff and police officials disagreed over matters ranging from police uniforms to the anticipated threat of anarchist protesters.

Through a data practices request, MPR News obtained a series of letters Sheriff Bob Fletcher wrote to the man in charge of St. Paul's security plan, Assistant Police Chief Matt Bostrom.

The letters also include one response from St. Paul Police Chief John Harrington and follow-up letters from Fletcher to Harrington. The exchange started in April and ended in August.

A map shows locations of protester groups
A map of downtown St. Paul uses colored dots to show various protester groups that Sheriff Bob Fletcher said were trying to disrupt the convention.
MPR Photo/Laura Yuen

Fletcher was worried whether St. Paul was recruiting enough police security. He called for hiring 500 additional officers in standard so-called "soft" uniforms. That's without helmets and other protective gear.

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At the same time, the sheriff also warned of overtaxing the riot police, known as the mobile field force, with routine duties such as patrolling downtown and monitoring the parade routes. He worried it would make it difficult to respond to mayhem.

And, Fletcher urged the department to hold training exercises for commanders so they could prepare for possibly dicey scenarios on the street.

Fletcher summarized these criticisms in yet another letter sent Wednesday to an independent review board investigating St. Paul's RNC security tactics. In that letter, the sheriff said more regular-uniformed officers would have offered a "less intimidating image" to peaceful protesters along the main marches.

"Much of this really relates to perception," Fletcher said in an interview.

Fletcher said he hoped to shed light on the security decisions so that the community could learn from the experience.

Much of this really relates to perception.

He said, while officers performed as they were trained, the plan was flawed, especially when it came to the multiple roles expected of the mobile field force.

"It is really next to impossible for persons that are trained with turtle gear and civil-disturbance equipment and helmets, to perform both duties of being smiling ambassadors in a community-policing mode and also suppressing civil disturbance," Fletcher said.

Fletcher also said the mobile field force was primarily trained to move people. He said that explains why some of those officers fired pepper spray and shoved individuals who refused to clear the street, instead of simply arresting them.

"If an individual is holding a flower in front of a line of mobile field force members, it's far simpler for two to four uniformed officers to pull up, place a person in handcuffs and throw them in a squad car," Fletcher said. "Mobile-field force officers weren't trained for that type of surgical arrest."

The sheriff also blames Assistant Police Chief Bostrom for painting a very different picture of what downtown St. Paul would look like during the RNC in the year leading up to the event.

Bostrom did not respond to requests for interviews today.

Equipped with SWAT gear, the St. Paul police force stood against a wall of photographers and cameras during the Poor People's Economic Human Rights Campaign's March For Our Lives rally in St. Paul, MN September 2, 2008.
MPR photo/Caroline Yang

But his boss, Police Chief John Harrington, said the public shouldn't read too much into the back and forth between his department and Fletcher's office. The two men became classmates in the police academy more than 30 years ago.

"I'd say it's pretty normal," Harrington said.

In a June letter, Harrington played down Fletcher's call for additional officers, as well as the anarchists' ability to carry out their threats.

Harrington wrote that his peers in the field advised him that "these are bad guys and bad guys tend to lie."

Harrington goes on to say: "I do not feel that I can justify the increase in staffing you suggest."

In an interview, Harrington says his department did not underestimate the potential for mayhem the protesters could create. But he didn't want to overstate the danger, either.

"We could not validate that there were going to be thousands and thousands of anarchists coming to town, and in fact, I don't think there were thousands and thousands of hard-core anarchists that came to town," Harrington said.

The chief did acknowledge that he was surprised how swiftly they moved through the streets.

And, he said, while the public may have been surprised by the intensity of police presence downtown, that's in part because some citizens latched onto early assurances from his department.

Harrington said as intelligence on violent protest groups changed, so did the plan. He said an August press conference announcing the purchase of tear gas and equipment should have been a clue that the police were gearing up.

"I don't know if it would be possible if you were paying attention to that to have totally misread that to say, 'The city of St. Paul doesn't expect anything to happen,'" Harrington said. "Because they just said they bought a large amount of chemical munitions, less-lethal equipment and riot-control equipment for one of the largest contingent of officers that have been put together in the state of Minnesota."

It wouldn't be the first time the two agencies sparred over logistical details for securing the convention. A year and a half before the RNC, Fletcher and Bostrom publicly disagreed over the sheriff's budget request to build a massive holding pen for people who would be arrested during the week.

Since the convention, much of the criticism of the police response to protesters that week has come from citizens who say downtown became militarized.

Professor Michael Andregg
Michael Andregg, an instructor of peace and justice studies at the University of St. Thomas, said the security tactics used during the convention conflicted with assurances offered by the St. Paul police department prior to the RNC. He questions who was in charge.
MPR Photo/Laura Yuen

"It was, 'March on in there, get penned in, be surrounded by guys with heavy weapons, and then get out," said Michael Andregg, a professor of peace and justice studies at the University of St. Thomas.

He also worked as a liaison bringing together peace workers and St. Paul police officials such as Matt Bostrom.

During one of the marches, Andregg said he ran into a commander he recognized in riot gear.

Andregg said he asked the commander about the heavy tactical presence as well as why the officers did not have individual IDs on them.

Andregg said the officer told him that some things fell through the cracks, and that the officers were wearing identification, but they were hidden under the gear.

In a Veterans for Peace march the day before the convention, Andregg and other marchers were puzzled by five military helicopters circling downtown. That led Andregg and others to believe that federal authorities were calling at least some of the shots in the security implementation.

And, a couple days before the RNC, he said it was "eerie" when about 20 officers in full riot gear unexpectedly stopped by a conference in a Bloomington hotel held by the National Veterans for Peace.

Activist and former FBI whistleblower Coleen Rowley said people are wondering, "Who was in charge?" Rowley said the various levels of agencies involved in securing the national event, from city all the way to federal, "diffused accountability and responsibility."

St. Paul's review board to scrutinize RNC police tactics will try to answer the question: Was the police plan the best way to secure downtown?

The panel hopes to complete its findings in mid-December.


Read part two of this series tomorrow or tune in to All Things Considered at 3 p.m. CST.