St. Paul police lead training to protect firefighters during mass demonstrations

Activists are skeptical police will respect their rights to protest as Chauvin's trial approaches in Minneapolis

A group of plain clothes police officers march with batons.
St. Paul police officers train to move a crowd in order to give firefighters access to a scene during joint training exercises in St. Paul on Feb. 24.
Evan Frost | MPR News

Under the fluorescent lights of a vacant Sears department store near the state Capitol, officers from across the east Twin Cities metro area have been preparing for six weeks for potentially dangerous situations that could occur at a mass demonstration.

St. Paul police Cmdr. Tim Flynn has led 550 St. Paul officers and 250 others from agencies in Dakota, Washington and Ramsey counties through the training.

“When the civil unrest was happening, we needed people from all those counties and agencies within those counties to come help us with what was going on in the city,” Flynn said.

The St. Paul Police Department added the training to deal with a specific problem encountered last year. Firefighters had trouble responding to buildings on fire because of the volatile situation around them.

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During the exercises, members of law enforcement, carrying wooden batons, practice moving back crowds, getting to injured or dangerous people within the crowd, and creating a small perimeter within which fire crews can safely work.

“So, physically and mentally what we are doing for those firefighters is letting them know, ‘We are there for you, we will provide a protective shell so you can do your job,’” Flynn said, “because we can't have a situation where they are trying to fight the fire but they are looking over their shoulder [to see] who is going to come use one of their tools against them or come cut their hose or come damage their truck.”

During the exercise outside in the parking lot, firetrucks lined up in the same direction and parked closely to take up as little space as possible within the police perimeter. Deputy Fire Chief Jeremie Baker said the biggest challenge is having a smaller footprint to use the equipment to its fullest advantage.

“[Typically] They would have been closer to get more hose inside, the ladder truck would have been on the corner to be able to reach two sides of the building,” Baker said.

A firefighter carries hose over his shoulder.
A St. Paul firefighter carries a hose during a joint training with police Feb. 24.
Evan Frost | MPR News

The six-week lease for the former Sears building with a large parking lot cost the Police Department $15,000. No agencies had to pay to participate in the training.

Flynn said most demonstrators are peaceful, and the department feels better prepared now to uphold the public’s First Amendment rights while intervening when necessary.

The trial of former Minneapolis officer Derek Chauvin is scheduled to begin next week. He’s charged with second-degree murder and manslaughter in the May 25, 2020, death of George Floyd. While most of the focus is on Minneapolis where the trial will take place, there’s the possibility of reaction in St. Paul.

Several businesses in St. Paul’s Midway area were damaged during the civil unrest in May. Chauntyll Allen, the founder of the Midway Rise Up coalition who is also part of Black Lives Matter Twin Cities and a St. Paul school board member, is critical of law enforcement’s lack of community outreach to known organizers ahead of the former officer’s trial.

“These are the same organizers that have been on the ground organizing and protesting for years,” she said.

Allen said she's felt city and police preparation for the trial further shifts the balance of power in favor of police, who have access to chemical irritants and rubber bullets. Dozens of people were injured by rubber bullets and other less lethal munitions at Floyd protests.

“Why aren’t we looking at how we can set up security measures to protect peaceful protesters so we can continue to have our First Amendment right?” Allen said.

Flynn, with the St. Paul Police Department, said the use of tear gas always requires the approval of the chief. Commanders may authorize other less-lethal munitions.

“We will make multiple announcements of what we want them to do and give them a plan and a route for them to leave the area,” Flynn said. “If need be, we are going to find the organizer and do a face-to-face conversation with that organizer about what we would like them to see, telling them the entire time, ‘We respect your right to protest, we respect your freedom of speech, we want to give you that venue to do so,’ but when it comes to destruction of property or injury to people, we are going to put an end to it.”