Convention cops: St. Paul struggling to recruit enough officers for RNC security

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According to official estimates, the Republican National Convention security force that will patrol the streets from September 1-4 requires the services of 3,000-4,000 Minnesota cops, but budgetary and legal issues are keeping a significant number of police organizations from signing on.

Representatives of the city and police department have denied that there was any problem in building a multi-agency force to patrol during the convention, but in surveying and interviewing employees of a number of municipal and county police agencies, the Minnesota Independent has learned that many have not yet formalized their commitment to send officers, and some plan not to send any for legal liability reasons.

The city of St. Paul has not released any hard information on the number of agencies it has already contracted with or the number of officers involved. Tom Walsh, the public information officer for the St. Paul Police Department, initially said he would provide the Minnesota Independent with a list of all the agencies that have already signed the so-called “joint powers agreements” (JPAs) and all those that have JPAs pending last Monday. But he failed to follow through on that pledge. He later asked MnIndy to hold its story until the list was ready on July 25; we declined. Walsh now says they will release the list tomorrow morning, July 18.

Walsh says that the city is expecting 550 officers from the Minneapolis Police Department, another 600 from various state agencies such as the State Patrol and the Bureau of Criminal Apprehension, and plans to commit 500 St. Paul police — over 80 percent of its 600-member force. That comes to approximately 1,600 officers, or roughly half of the low-end estimate of the number needed. Smaller department are chipping in as well. The Duluth Police Department, for instance, plans to send 30 to 40 cops, while Blaine will contribute six officers. But it’s difficult to estimate how many total officers will be coming from these smaller departments.

Rumors that the city of St. Paul and the St. Paul Police Department were having problems completing so-called “joint powers agreements” (JPAs) with other cop shops to supply needed bodies on the street during the convention have circulated in police and legal circles for some time. “It appears things are moving at your typical bureaucratic pace,” says Dave Titus, president of the St. Paul Police Federation. “We wish this stuff would have been done eight months ago. But we believe the department will acquire enough officers so that everybody — the cops, the protesters and the citizens — can all be safe.”

According to the Minnesota Board of Peace Officers Standards and Training, there are currently 10,300 licensed officers throughout Minnesota, representing 472 law-enforcement agencies. This includes everything from the Minneapolis Police Department to boutique cops shops like those run by the University of Minnesota and the Minneapolis St. Paul International Airport. The SPPD expects to tap approximately 80 of these various police departments to assist with the daunting task of policing the RNC.

In recent months, St. Paul city officials have been soliciting these law-enforcement agencies to commit cops to the cause. In order to meld the various agencies into one coherent force, contributing departments must sign off on a joint powers agreement that stipulates the terms of their involvement.

“Our viewpoint all along is that the RNC is a regional event and we feel an obligation and willingness to help out,” says Dakota County Deputy Sheriff Dave Bellows, whose department will provide 20 to 25 officers. “Quite a few hotel rooms will be occupied in Dakota County as well and we want to be good neighbors.”

But while many tentative commitments have been obtained, a survey of law-enforcement agencies across the state reveals that many of the joint-powers agreements (JPA) are still awaiting formal approval by the counties and municipalities involved. The Woodbury City Council, for instance, gave its thumbs up to a proposed JPA that would provide 15 officers to RNC security efforts at a meeting earlier this month, and it was reported in one suburban newspaper as a done deal. But according to Woodbury’s public-safety director, Lee Vague, the city has yet to officially sign off on the document.

The sticking point, in this case, is money. “I got the nod from the city council, but there’s still some question where the actual funding is concerned,” Vague says. “We want to make sure we get paid.”

St. Paul has been allocated $50 million in federal funding to cover security costs, a sum that will be used mainly to purchase para-military equipment — from riot gear to weaponry and vehicles — and to pay cops. Denver officials have indicated they might spend up to half their $50 million Democratic convention allotment on hardware. In St. Paul, Walsh tells MnIndy, the plan is to spend roughly $33 million on personnel.

Here’s the hang-up: The U.S. Department of Justice must green-light exactly how the money will be spent. And despite repeated claims by St. Paul city officials that federal approval is imminent, the Justice Department has not yet acted. “That’s what we’re waiting for,” says Vague. “Every city’s going through this. I know that we can send the cops. We’re cool with that.”

But if some departments are worried about getting paid, the larger issue in recruiting police and concluding joint-powers agreements has been the terms of the JPA that St. Paul is asking participating police agencies to sign. In the view of some agencies, the agreement contains too much potential liability risk.

The St. Paul JPA offers participating agencies liability insurance coverage with a $10 million limit. The cost of that insurance is being footed by the RNC’s Minneapolis St. Paul 2008 Host Committee per an agreement it struck with the city. Some police departments, particularly county sheriffs’ agencies across the metro, are worried that $10 million isn’t really enough to cover potential litigation costs associated with an event of the RNC’s magnitude. And if such expenditures did exceed $10 million, cities and counties fear they could end up on the financial hook.

The Carver County Sheriff’s Office, for instance, initially assumed it would send officers to help out with security during the four-day event. But after county officials scrutinized the proposed JPA, they decided against loaning out any cops. “The devil is in the details,” says Bob VanDenBroeke, chief deputy of the Carver County Sheriff’s Office. “We’ve got some real concerns about the language in the joint-powers agreement in the areas of liability and workmen’s comp.”

According to VanDenBroeke, they’ve asked the City of St. Paul to address these concerns, but the municipality has been unwilling to make any changes. “If they can do that, we’ll revisit it,” he says. “If they can’t do that we don’t think it’s responsible to put the Carver County taxpayers at risk at the level they are in this situation.”

VanDenBroeke says these concerns are shared by many other agencies. “I know that there are other counties considering the same issue,” he says. “St. Paul’s a very professional law-enforcement organization. Our intent certainly was to help them. If we can get by this legal language, I think that we would certainly be there.”

Officials in Chisago County developed similar concerns after scrutinizing the proposed JPA. “There were several issues with data privacy and liability issues,” says Chisago County Sheriff Todd Rivard. Ultimately county officials concluded that they’d be better off not getting their already cash-strapped department involved. “It’s a holiday weekend and we’re short anyway,” notes Rivard.

Woodbury’s Vague says the city shared concerns about whether the insurance policy would be sufficient to cover all RNC-related court costs. “They felt confident that they have enough money out there,” he says of St. Paul officials. “Do they? I don’t know. I don’t think there’s any way you can completely answer that. There’s some exposure there.”

Neil Melton, executive director of the Minnesota Board of Peace Officers Standards and Training, says liability issues are always complicated when law-enforcement agencies loan out officers. “The state fair runs into this all the time,” he says. “If I send my officer to your city to help you and they slip and fall and get hurt or something, who is going to pick up the tab?”

But St. Paul City attorney John Choi says concerns about liability are misguided. He points out that the $10 million figure was arrived at by consulting risk-management experts from the City of St. Paul and other municipalities in the metro area. “They felt that $10 million was double what the experience had been in any other city,” he says. “That number didn’t just come out of thin air.”

The League of Minnesota Cities offers an additional $1.2 million in insurance coverage for municipalities that are members of the organization. It’s also working on developing an additional insurance product specifically related to the RNC that would allow cities to purchase $5 million more of coverage. “Can we say that that’s enough coverage?” asks Jim Miller, executive director of the League of Minnesota Cities. “I don’t know that there’s an answer to that. You just don’t know what the ultimate exposure will be.”

Choi says he is confident that the city will ultimately reach suitable agreements with enough agencies to staff the convention. “This is an opportunity for law enforcement to shine,” he says. “So we hope people will step up and do the right thing and partner with the city of St. Paul in a positive way.”