Over the past summer, MediaMouse.org joined several independent journalists in St. Paul to cover protests against the Republican National Convention (RNC). During the four days of the convention, we witnessed numerous police abuses ranging from indiscriminate arrests to the use of offensive weapons such as pepper spray and rubber bullets on peacefully assembled protests. Along with that, we witnessed and heard descriptions of raids on houses and profiling of activists.
While the St. Paul Police Department and other government officials have previously weighed in via the media with generally positive assessments of police conduct at the protests–often citing the indictments against 8 anarchists or examples of property destruction–the first official report on police conduct was released last week.
Findings: Police Conduct mostly Justifiable with a few Mistakes
Overall, the Heffelfinger/Luger commission report concludes that police conduct was appropriate for the threat posed by the protestors. The report frequently speaks of “violent anarchists” who planned to commit random destruction and draws distinctions between “anarchists” and “peaceful protestors.” In the report’s version of events, police actions were justified after “anarchists”–whom the report declares were not legitimate protestors–became “violent” early on the convention’s first day. From that point, the report says police were forced to respond in a way that they had not originally planned.
Throughout the report it highlights a few minor examples of police misconduct–most of which are not among the more egregious abuses reported at the RNC. However, its main criticism of police conduct look at the law enforcement communities’ tactical failures–their failure to secure “joint-powers agreements,” their failure to “prepare” the public for the image of police in riot gear, and communication problems between agencies.
Criticism from Activists
The report–which was delayed from its mandated December 2008 release–cost $100,000 and was largely met by jeers when it was presented to the St. Paul City Council last week. According to the Minnesota Independent, the report’s release was repeatedly interrupted with cries of “lies.”
The report has long been criticized by activists for its limited scope and transparency. The report looked exclusively at whether or not the police security worked as the government hoped. It did not investigate specific abuses and out of 51 sources, 46 came from the government or security sectors. Additionally, the committee itself was led by two former federal prosecutors and included former cops and a former mayor.
A group called Friends of the RNC 8 also released a “Top 9 RNC Myths” list that challenges many law enforcement and media perspectives, including the notion that police behavior was justified because it stopped protestors from destroying the city or that the lack of “official” complaints about police conduct is proof that there was no misconduct.