Nearly 800 people were arrested. Pepper spray and flash-bang grenades were repeatedly utilized to disperse crowds. Store-front windows were smashed and vehicle tires slashed. If nothing else, the four days of the Republican National Convention certainly succeeded in bringing some excitement to the normally sleepy streets of downtown St. Paul.
Before a sometimes rambunctious public audience today, a seven-member panel, led by former U.S. Attorney Tom Heffelfinger and former Assistant U.S. Attorney Andy Luger, presented an 82-page report on policing during the Republican National Convention to the St. Paul City Council. While the panel generally concluded that the St. Paul police acted appropriately in overseeing security arrangements during the four-day gathering, it did offer numerous criticisms of the department’s preparations and tactics. Among the shortcomings outlined in the report:
• The cops should have done a better job of preparing the public for the police presence during the RNC. In numerous community events leading up to the convention, police officials emphasized that they intended to utilize a friendly and low-key approach to law enforcement. In reality, there were scores of cops in riot gear lining parade routes and protests on all four days of the convention, leading many observers to characterize it as a police state. “We take fault with the city for not preparing the community better,” Luger told the city council.
• The St. Paul Police Department was slow in working out “joint-powers agreements” with more than 100 outside law-enforcement agencies deemed necessary to staff the event. This led to uneven training for officers and a “slow and disjointed response to anarchist activities” on the first day of the convention.
• There was no established protocol for dealing with journalists who got swept up in unlawful assemblies and other events. This led to the arrest of more than 40 reporters who were attempting to do their jobs. “Both the media and the SPPD struggled with the question of who was a journalist and whether journalists (however defined) should be afforded some form of special treatment should they find themselves detained or arrested,” the report concludes.
• The use of “mass arrests” to deal with disturbances should be further reviewed. In particular, the report raises questions about the detainment of roughly 350 people on the Marion Street bridge during the final night of the convention.
Despite these criticisms, the panel concluded that the threat of violence from protesters during the convention was significant and that there were credible plans to shut down the convention. “These were sophisticated, organized and tenacious activists intent on committing repeated and highly dangerous acts of violence,” the report states.
During the one-hour presentation, a packed house of observers often laughed, jeered and offered unsolicited criticisms of the report’s findings. While the outside review was intended to placate critics of the police’s handling of the convention, it was clear that many who showed up were unimpressed by the process. Heffelfinger and Luger were repeatedly interrupted by cries of “lies” from the audience as they gave their testimony. On a couple of occasions city council president Kathy Lantry threatened to shut the meeting down if the audience did not desist from disrupting the presentation.
The seven-member panel was hired in October by the City of St. Paul to review police preparations and tactics during the four-day gathering. The group interviewed more than 50 people involved in RNC protests and policing, reviewed thousands of pages of planning documents, and watched hundreds of hours of videotape. All exhibits, including videos and photographs, can be reviewed on the city’s web site.
Despite the criticism, St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman expressed satisfaction at how the four-day gathering proceeded.
“I still believe at the end of the day it was a successful convention,” he told the city council. “We will take this report very seriously and we will act upon it where appropriate.”