Assessing RNC police tactics: missteps, poor judgments and inappropriate detentions

Part 1 of 2 articles

Police at the Poor People's March, Tuesday, Sept. 2, 2008 in St. Paul
MinnPost photo by Terry Gydesen
Police on the streets during the GOP convention last year: Critics say many of the police actions were unconstitutional.
Center for Investigative Reporting

The spying began late in the summer of 2007, after police in St. Paul discovered an amateur video online. It showed youths dressed in black, their faces covered with dark bandanas, tossing home-made fire bombs and seeming to prepare for an assault.

The group called itself the “RNC Welcoming Committee.”

For authorities in St. Paul, the whole thing seemed like serious business. The city was deep in preparations for the Republican National Convention, scheduled to take place in September of 2008. Security was their paramount concern, and nothing worse than a terrorist attack could happen during the four-day event.

In the year leading up to the convention, police would spend countless hours working to identify those behind the video and others who might be planning to disrupt the Republican Party’s nominating bash. They would draw on a new domestic intelligence infrastructure and take unprecedented advantage of laws expanded after 9/11 that give police more intrusive authorities to halt potential subversives and terrorists before they attack.

But far from yielding major revelations, some police work prior to and during the RNC resulted in a series of missteps, poor judgments, heavy-handed tactics and inappropriate detentions, according to interviews and a review of official documents obtained by the Center for Investigative Reporting.

Critics say many of the police actions were unconstitutional and a judge called one seizure illegal after the fact. Law enforcement officials a year later continue to defend their handling of the convention, arguing it was the only way to keep extremist hoodlums from disrupting the RNC and prevent violent incidents.

Their coordinated security operations, known generally as intelligence-led policing, have become common in cities across the country. A growing number of law enforcement agencies are linking their computer networks together in a national, classified data system that enables the extraordinary mining and sharing of police intelligence, while also adopting spy methods to gather information.

In contrast to Bush administration officials who wanted to limit how much the federal government spent sustaining such state and local homeland security initiatives, President Obama’s proposed budget for 2010 asked that $260 million from existing antiterrorism grants be used to pay for thousands of new intelligence analyst positions.

The results of St. Paul’s campaign against political protesters raises serious questions about whether police are properly trained to use their new authorities for good effect.

Police deployed infiltrators to report on political groups, tapped into information exchanges to examine data about people who were not accused of any crimes and conducted questionable searches based on intelligence.

One document revealed that a federally funded “fusion center” in Minnesota carried out “over 1,000 hours of support to intelligence operations” and “disseminated approximately 17 RNC situation reports to over 1,300 law enforcement recipients.”

Elsewhere, fusion centers in Iowa, Tennessee, Oregon and South Dakota supplied Minnesota authorities with driver’s license photos and criminal history records on people perceived as suspicious in connection with the Republican convention.

By the convention’s end, more than 800 people had been arrested, including eight who were charged with “conspiracy to riot in the furtherance of terrorism.” But a majority of the charges, including several treated as serious, were later dropped or downgraded after prosecutors had a chance to review the police allegations and activity.

Actors on a video
Police in St. Paul set off on the wrong foot when they saw potential terrorism in the online video.

The actors did look dressed for street demonstrations. In one scene, a woman wields bolt cutters as if preparing to tear down a steel fence. Then she is shown standing outside a small Navy recruiting station with a bowling ball in her hands labeled “Revolutionary Anarchist Bowling League,” a reference to political activists in the 1980s who gained modest notoriety by shattering the windows of an enlistment storefront in response to Ronald Reagan’s plans for invading Nicaragua with U.S. troops. Someone else in the video appears to throw rocks at people dressed as police officers attempting to control a riot.

“We’re getting ready,” the film says ominously. “What are you doing?”

Ramsey County Sheriff Bob Fletcher and his team would cite the video among other things in later warrant affidavits as a basis for his probe into the Welcoming Committee when police stormed the group’s headquarters just before the convention began as thousands of reporters and more Republican delegates converged on St. Paul.

But court affidavits ignored something crucial. The Molotov cocktail in the video is phony and lands in a barbecue grill lighting charcoals ablaze as an outdoor chef smiles thankfully. The bolt cutters are passed to another individual beyond the fence who uses them harmlessly as hedge clippers. The bowling ball rolls past the Navy recruiting station and into a group of pins assembled on the sidewalk. A youngster, 4 or 5 years old at most, is the only one seen throwing rocks in the video and they strike the ground rather than the actors.

The film was a juvenile satire of popular anarchist imagery, but police allowed their fear and enthusiasm for fighting terrorism to prevail. Within days of the video’s release on the Internet, Fletcher, alongside other law enforcement agencies, launched what became a $300,000 investigation into the RNC Welcoming Committee and other protest groups. Authorities later told a judge the film depicted “significant property damage” and “violence toward law enforcement.”

They said it provided reasonable suspicion that the RNC Welcoming Committee was conspiring to destroy property, create civil disorder, wreak havoc with bombs and engage in “unlawful assembly,” all for the purposes of undermining the Republican National Convention.

But there wasn’t a consensus about the threat among officials in St. Paul and Minneapolis, or the need to conduct an open-ended intelligence effort. Police even quarreled over how many protesters would arrive. One document predicted 100,000 demonstrators planned to show up. Fletcher wrote to the St. Paul Police Department that inside the throngs there could be as many as 3,000 “anarchist-affiliated protesters.” The actual number was close to 10,000 total demonstrators, a fraction of them thugs intent on creating real trouble.

Expanded program
The proponents of intelligence-led policing won out despite disagreement. In the months leading to the convention, police expanded their program.

According to documents obtained by the Center for Investigative Reporting from Minnesota’s fusion center, police from the Twin Cities asked their partners in the law enforcement community to collect information on where protesters were camping or renting land, snap photographs of their belongings and, if possible, seize supplies that might be used for “illegal direct actions.”

“One of their goals will be to attempt to create images of law enforcement personnel engaging them so they can claim brutality and violations of their civil rights,” a memo from the Minneapolis Police Department states about protesters. “They will likely attempt to use such incidents as a basis for future law suits against the city of Minneapolis.” The list of logistical items these direct-action groups might accumulate includes food that will “be as organic as possible,” and when they arrive their preferred method of transportation could be “older, low-value” bicycles.

Police in Minnesota downplay the reach of its fusion center. “Data mining doesn’t make any sense,” said center director and career police investigator Michael Bosacker in an interview with the Center for Investigative Reporting. “For us to just pick a person and start looking at him – unless it’s part of a case and raises suspicion of a crime – doesn’t make any sense. We don’t have the personnel to do that. We don’t have the time to do that.”

Instead the Minnesota Joint Analysis Center relied on “intelligence analysts” to disseminate memos to other law enforcement agencies advising them on what authorities anticipated would occur during the convention and how to respond.

Sheriff Bob Fletcher
Sheriff Bob Fletcher

Fletcher’s office, meanwhile, began a surveillance campaign of the Welcoming Committee, taking hundreds of photographs of political organizers, many of whom were not ultimately charged with anything illegal. Informants joined the group and fed police confidential but unverified information that became the basis of eventual search warrants and criminal charges.

They attended multiple protest planning meetings, including one in Lake Geneva, Minn., where attendees allegedly used water bottles as mock Molotov cocktails to practice throwing at vehicles and buildings. “Numerous” informants, according to police claims, told authorities of another meeting in Wisconsin where activists reviewed military training manuals and discussed slamming into lines of police with shields.

Two of the informants were women who worked for Fletcher’s department, one as a narcotics officer and the other as a jail guard. A third young man built like a high school wrestler with close-cropped hair was hired as an informant by Fletcher and later began working as a jail guard for the sheriff.

A fourth informant, Twin Cities resident Andrew Darst, reportedly provided information to the FBI but threatened to derail the government’s campaign against protesters when after the RNC he was arrested in an unrelated case. A local judge found him guilty of assault in March after he kicked down the door of a home in pursuit of his wife who was attending a party inside.

Efforts against planned protests grew — the FBI directed additional informants as far away as Texas to spy on those heading to St. Paul for the RNC. Documents show that confidential FBI sources infiltrated anti-war meetings at a public library in Iowa City during August of 2008. The height, weight, hair color, lisps, grooming habits, online activities, phone numbers and e-mails of attendees were documented. Also in April of last year, according to published reports, an informant working for Ramsey County attended activist gatherings in Iowa.

Informants at meetings
Police infiltration and surveillance did not come as a total surprise to those involved in the Welcoming Committee’s planning get-togethers. They considered themselves essentially a logistical group but assumed authorities would misconstrue their intentions anyway.

Activist Rob Czernik, 34, grew up as an Army brat and moved frequently about the country before becoming politicized at age 13 by the sight of poverty and destructive mountain-top removal in West Virginia, he said recently. Czernick moved to the Twin Cities 11 years ago.

The Welcoming Committee’s meetings were public and anyone could attend. Two who did, Czernik sensed, were informants and he turned out to be right. “Just the way they acted and behaved,” Czernik said, “aloof and not really making an effort to understand the politics of what we were doing.”

Among the protesters, anxiety escalated as the convention neared. Rumors circulated that people were being stopped at the Canadian border.

Wednesday: Police take action…

G.W. Schulz is a reporter for the Center of Investigative Reporting and covers homeland security. He can be reached at gwschulz [at] cironline [dot] org.

This account is based on in-depth interviews, news stories and an extensive examination of police reports, available court records and other public and government documents, including memos obtained from the Minnesota Joint Analysis Center through the state’s open-records laws. It began in late 2008 as part of the Center for Investigative Reporting’s project covering homeland security in the United States, “America’s War Within.” You can learn more about the project at www.cironline.org.

Related: What’s the Minnesota Joint Analysis Center?

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Comments (6)

  1. Submitted by Jeremy Powers on 09/01/2009 - 01:29 pm.

    The problem is in these situations is police adopt an: “Arrest them all and let God sort them out” mentality. There really is zero effort to determine right or wrong or find perpetrators and separate them from regular people during the event. What a police chief wants, politically, is no riot in his streets. The easiest way to do that is just clear the streets. Then, after they’ve had a sleepless night in the worst form of housing in the civilized world, let them out. They’re going to go home, take two showers, eat a ham sandwich with new-found enjoyment and sleep for a week.

    That’s wrong and police should be criticized for it. Unfortunately, it works so well there is zero chance they will change.

    However, what truly STUPID is Sheriff Fletcher’s effort to continue to press charges. Just drop them. Unless you have film of a guy with a gun and victim, just drop them. It’s over. Quite trying to defend in the light of day an indefensible strategy that was carried out in the diffused and confused dimness of a potential street riot.

    What I don’t understand is why any city would want to host a political convention. I am a member of the DFL and even at the best of times these are rowdy celebrations. They’re going to happen, but why do cities bid for them like they’re the Olympics or something.

  2. Submitted by Bernice Vetsch on 09/01/2009 - 02:01 pm.

    Sure glad we know how to recognize potential terrorists (they eat organic food and ride old bicycles) and anarchists, who believe that human beings can reach their highest potential without direction from government.

    The most peaceful and gentle people I met on Labor Day 2008 were a group of students, who called themselves anarchists, who were being housed by Macalester College. The most frightening people I that day saw were the thousands of police in riot gear blocking every street crossing until after 3pm, the police on horseback and on motorcycles and in squad cars with screaming sirens rushing to latest broken window (or whatever).

    America, beginning with the creation of the huge and unwieldy Dept. of Homeland Security, did not have to slide into full-scale paranoia after 9/11. Other countries don’t. and they don’t label people as terrorists instead of criminals (if a crime has been committed) without proof.

    And they recognize a disaster like Katrina as a disaster that deserves a real security response instead of the cruelly lackadaisical neglect and mismanagement of the still-far-from-adequate “reconstruction” of New Orleans. Perhaps if the damage had been carried out by terrorists, the Bush administration would have done a better job.

  3. Submitted by Virginia Martin on 09/01/2009 - 04:49 pm.

    The mentality is sheer anger and rage. I was in Chicago during the national Democratic Convention in 1968 (OK, full confession, I worked for the police dept. but not as a combatant). Many of the hippies and others coming for the convention had nothing more on their mind than halting the Vietnam War; Gene McCarthy was running. The Chicago 8 were more serious, but many of their antics were just to disorient the city. They said they were going to put LSD in the water supply, for example, which I gather is impossible. The cops and Mayor Daley decided to crack down (literally). They expected violence, and they got it because they were the primary perpetrators.
    Most of them did not realize that many of the things Abbie Hoffman and others were doing were jokes!
    But they didn’t like hippies and they didn’t like people challenging authority, and Mayor Daley told them to go get them, and they were glad to. It was mayhem. It didn’t need to happen. They really did everything wrong, but I guess some cops acted out some of their hostility, to the detriment of many. (I left Chicago soon after.)

  4. Submitted by Virginia Martin on 09/01/2009 - 04:55 pm.

    We might want to think about why so many cops are so easily enraged and ready to believe the worst, especially of people that don’t look and act like them.

  5. Submitted by Greg Laden on 09/09/2009 - 12:55 pm.

    This is some very nice reporting. I eagerly await how things turn out over the next month with the finishing up (we hope) of the criminal court issues and the ramping up of civil suits against the state and city.

    I’d love to hear more about what the Mayor of Saint Paul thinks about all of this.

    Here’s my blog post inspired by this story:

    The Day the Right Wing Lost Its Last Shred of Moral Standing

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