On Aug. 18, 2014, an unannounced U.S. Navy training exercise littered the skies over downtown Minneapolis and St. Paul with unmarked helicopters, which snaked among the office towers before hovering above rooftops. Again and again the choppers flew, beginning after dusk that Monday and lasting into the late evening.
The exercises — and questions among residents about what exactly was happening — lit up social media and set off calls to 911, the news media and elected officials. Unlike a similar exercise in 2012, no advance notice had been given prior to the exercises commencing. A brief announcement by Minneapolis police — 90 minutes after the flights began — was the only confirmation that it was a training exercise. It wasn’t enough to stem the controversy, which would last for months.
Now, in response to a Data Practices Act request filed last year by Public Record Media — a nonprofit organization that uses such requests to obtain and publish government data — a paper trail among the military officials, police department and government officials reveals how officials scrambled to respond to the public outcry over the exercise. The documents also shows how extensively the St. Paul Police Department, especially its SWAT unit, cooperated in the planning and logistics of the two-week training by the U.S. Special Operations Command.
On the first night, after residents of Minneapolis and St. Paul began questioning — and then expressing alarm over — the presence of the helicopters, emails show a hurried (and unsuccessful) attempt to get ahead of the controversy. A military public affairs officer drafted two versions of a press release and sent them to peers with the two city governments. The first said the exercises were “in close coordination with local law enforcement agencies” and apologized for any “alarm or inconvenience.”
The second release added: “We appreciate your patience and understanding as night training will occur through Thursday.”
“These are great,” the unnamed military official wrote of the proposed press statements. “Get them through the first night and should be more understanding the rest of the week.”
St. Paul media staffers and officials, however, pushed for something more specific.
“I do think we should acknowledge that residents were not notified properly yesterday in some fashion as we discussed in the meeting,” wrote Ashley Aram, press secretary to Mayor Chris Coleman. Other Coleman aides wanted clarification as to what St. Paul received — or didn’t receive — from the military for allowing the exercises to take place in the city. That seems in response to news stories that said the city was rewarded with surplus military equipment or that St. Paul Police being trained by the military.
Deputy Mayor Kristin Beckman asked, “can you add more clarity that DOD is not training SPPD during the night?” Added Aram: “I also recall wanting to clarify that DOD is not giving SPPD any military equipment in exchange either.”
None of that made the final draft. Then-police department spokesman Howie Padilla said he had already spoken to the Pioneer Press about the erroneous claim that military equipment was received “and would not like to use this venue to correct their mistakes.”
Elected officials ‘must be controlled’
Despite the military’s hope, not many elected officials — who had no advance notice of the exercises — were patient or understanding. Minneapolis Council Member Cam Gordon later said he had nothing to tell residents who contacted him “and I looked like a big idiot because I couldn’t say what was going on.”
St. Paul Council Member Dave Thune’s response was immediate. And harsh. “This was a boneheaded blunder from the start,” Thune wrote in an e-mail to St. Paul police, civilian leaders and fellow council members. “This was not a safe exercise. The last time there was an ‘accident’ involving an aircraft and a downtown office tower the NYC World Trade Center collapsed.
“Our military leadership is inept, as we’ve seen again and again, and our excellent and trusted (St. Paul Police Department) should not be engaging in military training with them,” Thune wrote.
That didn’t go over well with the military leaders. The main Navy coordinator, whose name is redacted throughout the emails that have been released, said the political reaction has put the relationship between the military and St. Paul “at risk.”
“St Paul is already on the ‘cliff’ with their recent town councilman’s actions,” the officer wrote to police brass in both cities, in what is most likely a reference to Thune. “It must be controlled.” He added that “we are directing our folks to remain on all your social media to capture anything that comes out in release. What’s at risk here — our future relationship. Your trip this way next year and our future trips that direction.
“I am not directing this at you,” the commander wrote. “I am asking you to be diligent with your seniors in reminding them of this. It’s a huge loss if they cannot be disciplined since we are not in the immediate area the rules do not change.”
The comment about “your trip this way next year” suggests St. Paul did receive training from the military. Steve Linders, a civilian public affairs employee of the department, said there was no “quid pro quo.” St. Paul had used Navy training facilities in the past and was considering using the again this year, but decided not to. Linders said the decision was based on the expense rather than the fallout from the 2014 training in the Twin Cities.
At the same time, St. Paul police leaders were trying to calm the same elected officials. A memo written by Assistant Police Chief Todd Axtell said “there was no intent to keep anyone in the dark or to jeopardize public safety in any way,” and “I am sorry that not everyone was up to speed on the timing of the drills.” Axtell wrote that the USSOC “has changed their training for the next two nights so there won’t be any low flying in the Downtown area as a result of concern there.”
When told this week of the e-mail about him, Thune laughed. “I’m chuckling about veiled threats to our police department to get locally elected officials under control.” No attempt was made, he said, nor would it have worked. “I control their budget, not the other way around.”
The military’s presence ‘will be very subtle’
The Naval Special Warfare Development Group, the unit that conducted the exercises (known as Realistic Military Training or RMT), tagged the training “Urban Shield.”
“United States Special Operations Forces has a requirement to stay proficient in urban operations,” the commander of the program wrote to the owner of a building he wanted to use in the training by way of explanation. “Military training sites are not sufficient to support all urban training because they lack the variety of building layouts and mass transit platform our troops face when working in forward urban environments.“
Repeated promises were made that the exercises would not have a high profile. In an email obtained previously by Public Record Media, then-Deputy Minneapolis Chief Eddie Frizell told Mayor Betsy Hodges’ chief of staff, John Stiles, that the training is “a highly respected and security sensitive effort in with ‘special operators’ from elite units engage in anti-terror activities.” He compared it to 2012 exercises that went off “with little or no fanfare (that is the way they want it.)” Frizell added that “there will be an opportunity for (special operations division) personnel to be involved in the scenario.”
In the letter to Hodges asking the city to cooperate, a Navy officer called the training “low intensity” operations. “During the training, the signature of a military presence in the city will be very subtle, as all training will be coordinated with — and take place in the presence of — Minneapolis police officers.”
The detailed planning came early in 2014, according to an e-mail from the military commander to the two cities’ SWAT leads — Robert Skoro in Minneapolis and Tim Flynn in St. Paul.
SWAT leaders were asked to brief their chiefs so they would be “fully on-board” when they met with the mayors of the two cities. There was some concern expressed by the military official about Hodges, referred to in an email as the “new mayor.”
Getting her to agree to the training was essential. “We (cancelled) Indianapolis to move to Twin Cities,” wrote the unnamed military official. “St. Paul alone won’t cut it. If we can’t get Minneapolis in the fold (we have research there [sic] new mayor and chief and this is not automatic) we will have to press to city #3. Not our desire.”
Eventually, Hodges and Coleman both agreed to let the cities participate.
Seeking training sites; avoiding public discussion
After the cities signed off, up next was a lengthy courtship of owners of privately and publicly owned sites that could be used for the training: rooftops for simulated landings; public buildings into which forces could be “inserted”; light rail stops “remotely located away from the majority of city traffic”; so-called breaching sites, i.e. “a property that has multiple steel doors.”
At one point, the military asked Flynn to engage a local real estate agent to find up to a dozen “safe houses” for the members of the training units to live in while in the region. “Characteristics: Upscale neighborhoods better, semi or completely isolated better, furnished, power & plumbing on, driveways or locations that can accommodate up to four vehicles per, occupation by up to 10…”
The Navy found plenty of people willing to help. An April e-mail to Metro Transit thanked the agency for its cooperation and then asked about use of vehicles for the training: small delivery vans and some sedans. The request came with a notable disclaimer, though. “We wouldn’t destroy the vehicles and we will ensure to take care of them,” the Navy wrote. “In the worst case scenario they would get dents in the bumpers but we will not cause any major damage where they are not able to drive.”
Many property owners opted to pass. RockTenn in St. Paul was not willing to let the training use its “fireman’s training building.” Also unavailable was the historic headquarters building at the 3M complex, buildings on the former Ford plant site, the old Post Office in St. Paul and the Ameriprise building in Minneapolis.
Use of the old Macy’s Building in St. Paul brought a series of complications. Flynn told the Navy official that a staff member of the St. Paul Port Authority, which owns the building, wanted to put the matter of its use in the training exercise before the city council. “I called and talked him out of it,” Flynn wrote. “I spoke to him about confidentiality: who needs to know and when they need to know it. I even said if the static continues that there are plenty of other properties, and the training group usually gets its way in every other city in the United States of America will scrap that building as a target.”
In response, the Navy official wrote: “We learned this the hard way. If anything goes before the city council it needs to be a closed session with no media present.”
In addition, the port didn’t want helicopters landing on the rooftop of the parking ramp. The Navy wanted the language about no landings included in the written agreement with the port authority rather than have it verbally understood. “All it takes is one mishap and they have an email trail saying NO helo work. Everyone goes to the unemployment line … I move in your house … eat your food … drink your beer … it just gets ugly.”
The agreement was made. There was no council meeting.
According to maps released as part of the public records request, IDS Towers, Capella Towers, the Federal Reserve and the RBC Building in Minneapolis were all used. In St. Paul, the list of buildings used in the exercises included Macy’s, U.S. Bank, Degree of Honor and EcoLab. In addition, training was held at the water treatment plan in Fridley, the Summit Brewery, Xcel Center, the Fort Snelling LRT platform, the Pillsbury A Mill, the former Ramsey County jail and the Fruen Mill in west Minneapolis.
Navy policies suggest earlier notice
The fallout from the training exercise lasted for months. At a Sept 24 briefing of a Minneapolis council committee, for example, police leaders said they would not take part in future exercises, partly because of the botched announcement but also because Hodges felt the city was not well briefed on the extent of the training. And Thune said he was told such exercises — at least those involving helicopters flying among high rise downtown buildings and through residential neighborhoods — will not happen in St. Paul again.
Had the Navy followed its own policies, however, it might have been better off. A policy directive released with the e-mails notes that the media should be informed well ahead of time. “When possible, a planned media engagement in conjunction with the exercise may satisfy news media interest in the military activities and allay concerns of the citizens in the affected areas.”