Minn. police, Guard gear up for upcoming Chauvin trial
12 agencies are partnering on trial security in hopes of preventing widespread unrest and property damage
By Liz Navratil and Jessie Van Berkel
MINNEAPOLIS — Thousands of police, sheriffs deputies and Minnesota National Guard members are ready to jump into action during the upcoming trial of the first of four officers charged in the killing of George Floyd.
State and local officials spent the last eight months planning for what Gov. Tim Walz called the "most important trial in the country," in hopes of preventing a repeat of the riots that traumatized residents and burned businesses last summer.
Law enforcement leaders laid out a massive coordinated security plan Wednesday for the trial of former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin, and said their goals are protecting First Amendment rights and preventing crime and violence.
When people broke into businesses and lit buildings on fire in Minneapolis and St. Paul after Floyd's killing last May, local and state leaders scrambled to pull together law enforcement and decide where to send them. Those leaders vowed Wednesday that if riots break out again, their response will be different.
"One of the assets that we've had that is different from late May and early June of 2020 is time," Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey said Wednesday.
In the days following Floyd's death, some residents complained that they weren't able to get through to 911 or to get a quick response once they did. At the time, Walz called the city's response an "abject failure." Frey later accused the governor of hesitating to deploy the National Guard.
On Wednesday, Frey said he and the governor have "both a friendship and a partnership that I know will be critical to the state of Minnesota over the next couple of months."
He said the two have been meeting regularly in recent months, including on weekends, "to ensure that our mutual aid jurisdictions are lock-step."
State and local law enforcement agencies plan to open a joint information center that will allow them to work out of one location, rather than communicating via phone and email as they did in the early days following Floyd's death.
The unified approach, with 12 agencies partnering on trial security, means many people will weigh in on how to handle a given situation. Minnesota Department of Public Safety Commissioner John Harrington said while decisions will be made jointly, if there are differing opinions the leaders of the local jurisdiction — such as Minneapolis — will have the final say.
Jury selection for Chauvin is scheduled to begin March 8, and the trial could wrap up by late April.
Minnesota State Patrol Col. Matt Langer said the coordinated approach, dubbed "Operation Safety Net," will ramp up staffing as the trial proceeds, with the largest number of officers and soldiers deployed around closing arguments and the verdict.
They will have different groups focused on business corridors throughout the city, key government infrastructure and buildings and police precincts, Langer said. Others will be tasked with assuring fire and emergency medical crews can quickly get to calls and provide traffic control.
Minneapolis leaders encouraged people to prepare for road closures, update security plans for their businesses and check in with neighbors. People can expect to see fencing go up in parts of downtown Minneapolis, and Sixth Street South will be closed to pedestrians and vehicles near the Hennepin County courthouse starting March 1.
Officials are discussing a contingency plan to have up to 1,900 Minnesota National Guard members in Minneapolis and 1,000 in St. Paul, said Guard spokesman Lt. Col. Scott Hawks. But he stressed that Guard members could be diverted to other communities if needed and their presence in the Twin Cities might be far smaller than that, depending on what occurs.
Guard members do not have the authority to arrest people. Law enforcement officials said Wednesday the National Guard will be working in tandem with local police and sheriffs' deputies, who do have arrest powers.
Harrington said they do not yet have an exact count of how many law enforcement members could be available to help in the Twin Cities. The number of outside agencies offering to pitch in has climbed in the past week and continues to grow, Harrington said. Beyond the State Patrol, Minneapolis and St. Paul police and the Hennepin and Ramsey County sheriffs' offices, they have an additional 300 people offering to assist.
He stressed that for those wondering whether they will have sufficient resources: "The answer is quite clearly 'Yes.' "
City leaders said they are hoping to partner with community groups who will be able to share information with law enforcement agencies working in the joint center and pass information along to residents.
"Last summer, Minneapolis was the center of a national tragedy which challenged everyone in the city but was felt most by our Black, brown, Native and immigrant communities," City Council Member Jamal Osman said during the first of two trial-related news conferences Wednesday. "Now as we enter this next chapter, the city must do better and we are prepared with plans to do much better to keep people safe."
City leaders said they are working to increase staffing in the 911 center. In hopes of reducing strain on the system, they also plan to release more guidelines in the coming weeks that will help residents determine when to call 911, the city's 311 line or a police tip line.
Harrington said he is also reaching out to the Minnesota Grocers Association, banks, liquor stores and other businesses that were damaged last year, to help them prepare.
The unified law enforcement group is also working with federal, state and local partners to track online comments from extremist groups who may be planning to come to the area during the trial, he said.
Hennepin County Sheriff David Hutchinson noted they are looking at intel about that daily, but said, "As of right now I don't see a whole lot we're concerned about."
Meanwhile, suburban communities are also preparing for potential unrest. Dakota County Sheriff Tim Leslie said his department might increase the number of officers in each squad car during the trial, and they have purchased helmets and other protective gear. Also stocking up on equipment is Plymouth, in the northwest suburbs, which purchased riot gear last fall.
Leslie said there will be "game time decision-making" about whether to send deputies to help out in St. Paul, and his department would first ensure they are meeting their county's needs.
(Star Tribune staff writer Katy Read contributed to this report.)