Sheriff Fletcher stands by actions during RNC

Ramsey County Sheriff Bob Fletcher
Ramsey County Sheriff Bob Fletcher's critics call him a cowboy who seeks the limelight, but he says he's just concerned about public safety.
MPR Photo/Ambar Espinoza

Fletcher's critics call him a cowboy who seeks the limelight, but he said he's just concerned about public safety.

Betsy Raasch-Gilman's only encounter with Sheriff Fletcher came on the first night of the Republican National Convention.

Activist Betsy Raasch-Gilman
Betsy Raasch-Gilman, a longtime peace activist, anarchist and member of the RNC Welcoming Committee, said Sheriff Bob Fletcher confronted her on the first day of the convention. She said Fletcher seemed to play the role of "bad cop," while St. Paul police played the "good cop."
MPR Photo/Laura Yuen

Eight members of the self-described anarchist group, the RNC Welcoming Committee, had already landed in jail after the weekend house raids. But Raasch-Gilman, a core committee member, was spared.

She said she was checking up on the group's St. Paul convergence center when a man in a van called her name.

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It was Ramsey County Sheriff Bob Fletcher

She said the sheriff flipped through a notebook with pages devoted to members of the Welcoming Committee and said he had a big file on her.

"He told me I was the next on the list of Welcoming Committee members to be arrested, and that I was only at liberty because he would like me to use my influence with the Welcoming Committee to tone things down," Raasch-Gilman said.

Raasch-Gilman is 56, more than twice the age of many of her fellow Welcoming Committee members. She wears round, tinted glasses, works as a bookkeeper and has been honored for her work in peace and non-violence activism.

In 1999, she participated in the controversial World Trade Organization protest in Seattle. Her mother, Rhoda Gilman, ran on the Green Party ticket for lieutenant governor in 2002.

Fletcher doesn't dispute his run-in with Raasch-Gilman, or even most details of their conversation. But he said his intent wasn't to threaten her arrest. Fletcher said he just wanted to reach out in hopes of preventing more of the property damage and mayhem that happened that day in downtown St. Paul.

"To be candid with you, at that point, and today, I'm not concerned about my style with Betsy," Fletcher said. "The goal and the primary concern was not Betsy's feelings, it was the safety of the protesters and the officers over the course over the event."

But while Fletcher may not be concerned about style, that often is the story that surrounds him. Many protesters have focused their criticisms on Fletcher, although it was the St. Paul police department that led the effort resulting in more than 800 arrests.

St. Paul City Council Member Lee Helgen said he was surprised to see the sheriff everywhere during the RNC.

"I certainly expected the Ramsey County [Sheriff's Office] to play an important role because they're right here and they provided a number of people," Helgen said. "But when you see the sheriff so visibly out there, when we were expecting the St. Paul Police Department to be the lead, that's a question I have. Even in the follow-up, the sheriff will call a press conference and provide all this information. OK, what's going on? What gives?"

Police Chief John Harrington said both agencies were investigating protest groups they believe to be dangerous. But Fletcher's office took the lead for a simple reason.

"They had the best information," Harrington said.

Ramsey County Sheriff Bob Fletcher
Ramsey County Sheriff Bob Fletcher speaking at a St. Paul news conference following raids just days before the RNC by his officers on what he said was a "criminal anarchist" group.
MPR Photo/Tim Nelson

Harrington said that, despite the St. Paul Police Department being the lead law enforcement agency, Flethcer's office had the best information.

"We had the lead in planning security for this, but in this case of this particular investigation, Ramsey County had the best intelligence, they had the best information, so they took the lead on this investigation," he said.

Fletcher's critics say he is a master in the art of distraction.

They note that two of his top aides had just been convicted of stealing money in an FBI "integrity test" last August, when the pre-convention raids began. In response, Fletcher said he had been investigating the Welcoming Committee for a year prior to those raids.

Since the RNC, Fletcher has called two press conferences, one was a joint announcement with Police Chief Harrington, to draw attention to the actions of rogue protestors. The announcements took place just hours before scheduled hearings invited public feedback on the conduct of law enforcement during the RNC.

Elliot Hughes
Elliot Hughes, a 19-year-old activist, describes his arrest in downtown St. Paul and his allegedly mistreated in jail.
Caroline Yang/MPR Photo

One activist, Elliot Hughes, claims officers tortured him in the Ramsey County Jail.

The sheriff said the public has misunderstood the role he played during the RNC.

For one, he said he did not have a command role. The St. Paul police controlled the deployment of officers on the street and the overall security plan. Fletcher's office supplied 185 employees to work on crowd control and booking.

Fletcher's main charge was investigating the RNC Welcoming Committee. And he is happy to talk about that.

"What we're trying to do in this room is analyze everything that occurred on Sept. 1 this year," Fletcher said. "All the persons who were arrested are posted here as well as any particular connection to their activity."

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

In the county's Law Enforcement Center, Fletcher and his investigators have taped mug shots, maps and various photos of protesters during the RNC to the walls of one room.

Investigators say they're scouring through thousands of hours of video taken of protesters and police. They find a lot of it on YouTube and the indy media outlet, the Uptake.

Fletcher said tracking what happened on the first day of the RNC is crucial because it shows the Welcoming Committee carried out a year's worth of planning on that day.

Fletcher said that evidence could be used in the prosecution of the so-called "RNC Eight." They have been arrested on the felony charge of conspiracy to riot in furtherance of terrorism. It's believed to be the first time Minnesota has used the post-9/11 terrorism enhancement.

Radio communications indicate that things were beginning to get hairy on the outskirts of downtown by 12:30 p.m. Fletcher said chaos was under way on the streets of St. Paul for two hours before police could get a handle on it.

Fletcher points to pictures of RNC protesters
Ramsey County Sheriff Bob Fletcher points to a photograph of two men throwing sandbags from a freeway overpass in downtown St. Paul. Fletcher said one of the bags struck a bus carrying RNC delegates. No one was hurt.
MPR Photo/Laura Yuen

"The strategy to 'crash the convention' is against the law," Fletcher said. "It's against the law to block buses and people from getting to the convention. It's criminal on its face."

And he may be winning some points lately in the public eye. A Michigan man pleaded guilty to making Molotov cocktails for the RNC protests and another man admitted to slashing tires of a bus used for transporting delegates. It's not clear, however, if they were connected to the Welcoming Committee.

But where Fletcher sees crime, the anarchists and their supporters see civil disobedience.

Carla Magnuson, a National Lawyers Guild attorney and legal advisor to a support group of the RNC Eight, said the Welcoming Committee was made of young idealists who opposed Republican policies.

"I don't think they said, 'hurt people,'" Magnuson said. "To the degree they were suggesting even civil disobedience, they were suggesting traffic jams. They were suggesting putting things in the road so delegates would feel inconvenienced."

Some activists have called for Fletcher's resignation and he's survived a recent attempt to make the Ramsey County Sheriff an appointed, not elected, position. Five years ago, he prevailed over a petition to oust him.

Yet he still wonders why the story is often about him.