Crowd control at the RNC: Fifty million unanswered questions


The RNC is over, and it’s not just Sarah Palin exhaling relief. The mayors of each twin city have issued their unanimous judgment of law enforcement actions during the daily protest rallies and marches of the RNC.

Their one-word summary: Convention police showed “restraint.”

Advocates for the hundreds, perhaps thousands of protesters (and a few journalists) who were pepper sprayed, maced, smoke-bombed, shoved, shot at (with non-lethal “impact rounds”), dispersed, cited, and detained have issued their own consensus message: See you in court.

The City of St. Paul had $50 million in federal money to spend on security for the RNC. Anybody on the streets of downtown St. Paul during the convention could have a close-up look at how some of that taxpayer money was spent, as police in riot gear showed off their tactical training and weaponry daily.

Members of the Minneapolis City Council have already called for an independent investigation with public hearings. In a statement issued on Friday, council members Cam Gordan and Gary Schiff noted:

Throughout the Republican National Convention we have seen and heard a number of disturbing reports of actions taken by law enforcement, including the Minneapolis Police Department personnel, against journalists, observers, medics, bystanders, people engaged in peaceful protest and others.

We have also heard stories of patience and flexibility on the part of many law enforcement personnel. We thank and commend law enforcement for the service they provide and the many instances in the past few days where police as well as protesters have shown restraint and the ability to engage in healthy civic protest without incident.

There is, it seems, a question for every one of those fifty million security dollars shoveled into St. Paul’s coffers. Having witnessed a good number of the confrontations between law enforcement and protesters last week, this reporter has a few of his own.

The bottom third of a Triple Chaser grenade. (Photo: Jeff Severns Guntzel)

I watched police in full riot gear throw dozens of explosive “Triple Chaser” tear gas grenades over four days of RNC protests. The manufacturer of these grenades, Defense Technology, explains them like this:

A pyrotechnic grenade consisting of three separate canisters pressed together with separating charges between each section. When deployed, this grenade will separate into three distinct sub-munitions spaced approximately 20 feet apart – allowing increased area coverage in a short period of time.

The manufacturer’s literature warns of “injury or death to you or others” and “serious damage to property.” When and how were law enforcement officers trained to use these grenades? Was it up to individual officers or were there signals from commanding officers?

At one point on Kellogg Boulevard, an officer tossed one of these devices right at my feet and I jumped just in time for the explosion of the grenade’s three burning and gassing sections. What would have happened if I had not jumped and the grenade had exploded at my feet? There were other occasions where I observed people running with a Triple Chaser tumbling just behind them. Was law enforcement risking unnecessary injury to protesters and were they acting within their training? How many Triple Chaser grenades were ordered for RNC security? How many were used?

Law enforcement used high-powered pepper spray aerosol cans. (Photo: Jeff Severns Guntzel)

The first time I witnessed the use of red, hand-triggered pepper spray canisters was also at Kellogg Boulevard. Law enforcement officers sprayed liberally and often at close range — directly into the faces of protesters, clearly marked legal observers, and credentialed media. Perhaps the most dramatic example of this was caught on camera by a FOX television crew here.

How were law enforcement officers trained to use pepper spray? Is there a minimum distance at which officers were advised to stand when using it?

The casing of a Direct Impact round. (Photo: Jeff Severns Guntzel)

Perhaps the most ominous and persuasive crowd control weapon on display in the streets of downtown St. Paul was the rifle that fired “impact rounds.” Here’s how the manufacturer of the impact rounds (again, Defense Technology) explains the ammunition:

The 40MM Direct Impact round is a “point of aim, point of impact” direct fire round that is most commonly used by tactical teams in situations where maximum deliverable energy is desired for the incapacitation of an aggressive, non-compliant subject.

The Direct Impact round is intended for direct fire deployment. The operator should be adequately trained in the use of Specialty Impact Munitions and have a thorough understanding of the round and considerations for selecting shot placement such as level of threat, target distance, size, and clothing.

The Direct Impact round will prove most successful for incapacitation when used within its optimal energy range of approximately 10-75 feet, although it may be used in situations from 5 to 120 feet. The optimal zone offers the necessary energy and accuracy to target the large muscle groups of the buttocks, thigh, and even the knees of the subject. These areas provide sufficient pain stimulus, while greatly reducing serious or life threatening injuries. However, the size and weight of this round makes it the safest of all choices for engaging the abdomen or upper torso of the subject.

The Direct Impact round can also deployed in crowd control situations to protect the riot line, cover or enhance chemical munitions, or targeting specific agitators and organizers of the crowd. When used in this fashion, it is primarily both a psychological deterrent and physiological distraction serving as a pain compliance device to either get the crowd (or subject) moving or keeping them at a designated distance.

Who were the law enforcement officers chosen to carry rifles capable of firing impact rounds? How were they vetted? Were these officers permitted to shoot through a smoke screen? How many of these rounds were ordered? How many were fired? The rounds can be ordered with a chemical irritant included. Did any of the rounds fired during the RNC include an irritant?

Officers carrying impact rounds. (Photo: Jeff Severns Guntzel)

There is also a more broad line of questioning. How should the deployment of any of these weapons be judged? There were clear incidents of violence by a small handful of the many thousands of protesters who visited St. Paul, most of those incidents isolated to Monday’s protests (among these incidents: store windows were smashed, a delegate bus was hit with a brick, and at least one counter-protester was aggressively handled). But in each of the separate incidents I witnessed where Triple Chasers, pepper spray, or impact rounds were used, there were no evident acts of violence on the part of protesters.

Do you have anything to add to these questions? Law enforcement officers out there, is there anything you’d like to add or comment on? We’ll be pursuing these questions as reporters do, through interviews with law enforcement and other officials and by digging through documents and footage — but thousands of you were there behind placards or suited up in riot gear. I’d like to hear from you.