Minnesota Cops Promise a Kinder, Gentler RNC

So why are they stocking up on stun guns?

The NYPD's heavy-handed suppression of protests during the 2004 Republican National Convention seems to have tarnished the reputation of the world's most famous police department—even in the eyes of other police agencies.

Not that there won't be suppression of protests at this summer's RNC in Minneapolis–St. Paul. But it may be kinder and gentler.

Late last month, the St. Paul Police Department's guidelines for information gathering and investigations of expected protest groups at this year's RNC in the Twin Cities was leaked to the media, prompting concern among activists that the cops are going to be spying on them, as New York cops did before the 2004 RNC.

The St. Paul cops were defensive, with spokesman Tom Walsh telling the local papers: "We are not following the New York model. We've been saying that from the beginning."

The "New York model"? Walsh explains to the Voice: "To us, it means we're taking a much more open approach. It may be simplistic in some ways, but I think that's my most honest response."

The "open approach," according to Walsh, mostly pertains to how the cops are trying to deal with groups planning demonstrations. "As soon as we get information, we give it to them," he says.

That's all well and good, and even the ACLU's Minnesota chapter has acknowledged that—with a caveat. "Right now, the city is saying all the right things," says the ACLU's Teresa Nelson. "But we need more than just statements."

Meanwhile, the St. Paul cops apparently need more than their current arsenal. The city's 370-member police department (compared with the NYPD's 36,000 cops) is stocking up on stun guns. Last month, the St. Paul City Council authorized the purchase of 230 stun guns. Combine that with the 140 stun guns already issued to St. Paul cops, and it means every member of the force will have one in time for the RNC.

Other signs aren't so good, either. Mick Kelly, a spokesman for the Coalition to March on the RNC and Stop the War, says the city is "dragging its feet" when it comes to issuing demonstration permits. Kelly also asserts that the police have been openly filming anti-war protests, and that the guidelines for gathering information on protest groups is "a page borrowed right from the playbook of the New York Police Department."

"We don't have a crystal ball, so we don't know what to expect," Kelly says. "But I wouldn't be surprised by anything."

St. Paul's cops have also huddled with the NYPD, but the ACLU is trying to head off the possibility of copycat tactics. Nelson says the ACLU has given police officials in the Twin Cities copies of the New York Civil Liberties Union report "Rights and Wrongs at the RNC." "I'm hoping, certainly, that they'll learn from the problems that happened in New York," she says.

Before the 2004 RNC in New York, the Miami Police Department was considered by protest and civil-rights groups as this century's standard bearer for the heavy-handed suppression of dissent. The Miami cops earned that distinction with their handling of the Free Trade Area of the Americas protests in November 2003. On the third day of those demonstrations, cops fired rubber bullets, sprayed mace, and arrested more than 200 people. Critics derisively referred to the policing of the event as the "Miami model."

Miami police chief John Timoney tells the Voice: "That's all bullshit as far as I'm concerned."

But even the Miami model had a New York angle: Timoney spent 29 years in the NYPD.

In fact, the New York model of 2004 that the St. Paul police refer to was actually just the "Miami model" with a twist, says Alex Vitale, a sociology professor at Brooklyn College and one of the authors of "Rights and Wrongs at the RNC." Cops in both Miami and New York, Vitale says, used "advance surveillance of demonstrators, advance negative publicity—'The anarchists are coming to town, the anarchists are coming to town'—so you create a climate of fear poisoning the well before anything happens. Then large-scale pre-emptive arrests, followed by holding people in custody for long periods of time."

The NYPD also used metal pens and gates to herd protesters. Whether those tactics will be used in the Twin Cities this summer isn't yet known.

So far, the run-up to the 2008 convention is mellower than that for the 2004 confab. Although Walsh acknowledges that St. Paul police have been in regular contact with NYPD officials to get advice on "general plans," he says he doesn't know the details. But he does tell the Voice that Minnesota cops aren't planning mass arrests like the 1,800 made in New York City—more than 1,600 of which were dismissed without any charges being filed. "To my knowledge," Walsh adds, there are no plans to set up a mass-detention facility. In 2004, the NYPD used a former bus depot off the West Side Highway to detain RNC protesters for more than two days before they were brought into court.

As for pre-convention surveillance and infiltration—two tactics vigorously embraced by New York City officials in the summer of 2004—Walsh demurs on the details, but insists that the St. Paul Police Department doesn't have the money or the resources to spy on and infiltrate organizations (most of them benign) all over the country, the way the NYPD did.

"I'm not going to characterize their approach as being too heavy-handed," Walsh says. "I'm just saying we're taking an approach that is different, and it is a little more open."

Spokesmen for the NYPD and Mayor Bloomberg didn't return messages seeking comment on the performance of the city's cops in 2004. But from the NYPD's perspective, the 2004 RNC could be considered a success. Vitale says Bloomberg and Police Commissioner Ray Kelly prevented disruption of the convention and of everyday life in the city, while avoiding the kind of negative publicity that would have been generated by images being beamed around the world of New York cops beating up on protesters.

"They achieved those objectives," Vitale says. "The problem was, they did it by breaking the law. There should have been a fourth objective: guaranteeing lawful demonstrations."

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