BEMIDJI, Minn. -- The potential for pipeline protests in Bemidji, Minn., similar to the Dakota Access Pipeline protests in North Dakota has led the Beltrami County Sheriff’s Office and other agencies to prepare in advance.
On Tuesday, Feb. 20, Sheriff Phil Hodapp asked the Beltrami County Board of Commissioners to approve a mutual aid agreement with various northern Minnesota agencies. This new agreement differs from state statute, which requires an emergency before a government unit can request aid from another.
“Timing wise, both northern districts of the (Minnesota) Sheriff’s Association have been working on this for the last six to eight months,” Hodapp told the Bemidji Pioneer on Thursday, Feb. 22. “It’s to respond to matters such as protest activities that we perceive may occur in the future. It’s about sharing resources among the law enforcement agencies in northern Minnesota, if the need arises.”
According to Hodapp, the possibility of protests taking place in the near future are “very likely,” especially with a decision coming soon at the state level on Enbridge Energy’s Line 3 oil pipeline replacement project. No anti-pipeline groups have announced that they plan to protest in or around Bemidji.
Last month, the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission moved its decision date on Line 3 from April or May to sometime in June. The pipeline would replace Enbridge’s old Line 3 and carry oil across northern Minnesota to a terminal in Superior, Wis. While the old line moves through Bemidji, the new pipeline route goes around Bemidji to the south. Enbridge also has a local Bemidji office, which itself has seen various protests over the years.
“It falls on law enforcement if those (protests) do occur, and the first responders to something like that will be local law enforcement,” Hodapp said. “It’s a concern for all the counties in the state.”
During his presentation Tuesday, Hodapp cited the Dakota Access Pipeline protests in North Dakota.
“Think about what happened a few years ago with DAPL, the Morton County (N.D.) Sheriff’s Office was dealing with 10,000 people that cropped up in the middle of the prairie,” Hodapp said.
Protests of the Dakota Access Pipeline began after the company’s permit was approved in July 2016. Following the approval, the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe sued the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, and protests began to form near Cannon Ball, N.D.
The protests garnered international attention and support from various groups and even Hollywood celebrities, with thousands traveling to protest the pipeline. The number of protesters eventually declined from thousands to a few hundred before an evacuation was ordered in February 2017.
Following the evacuation, 46 people were arrested for failing to leave as ordered. Cleanup of the main protest camp didn’t finish until March 2017.
According to Hodapp, the potential for such a large protest happening in northern Minnesota means that the best move is for counties to be prepared. This, Hodapp said, means starting coordinations with other law enforcement agencies early.
“The decision-making hinges on what information the county receives. If a county starts getting information that there may be thousands of protesters in an area with a population of, say, 5,000, then they have to handle that,” Hodapp said. “If you’re a smaller agency, you might not be equipped for something like that. So, you have to have the ability to call in additional resources to handle that situation.”
Beltrami County Commissioners voted 4-1 Tuesday to approve entering the mutual aid agreement. Voting in favor were commissioners Keith Winger of District 1, Reed Olson of District 2, Richard Anderson of District 3 and Jim Lucachick of District 5; District 4 Commissioner Tim Sumner was against.
In an interview Thursday, Olson told the Bemidji Pioneer that he feels he should’ve voted differently.
“When I was driving home that Tuesday night, I thought about it and I wished that I had not voted for it. I don’t know if we understand the power that we’ve given over to the office of sheriff,” Olson said. “It gives the sheriff, and this has nothing to do with Phil (Hodapp), but the sheriff position in Beltrami County the ability to declare a perceived future state of emergency, to put together law enforcement in a preemptive move to block what might be unrest.”
Olson said Thursday it may have been better to have Tuesday’s agenda item on the agreement be informational only to ensure everyone is on the same page before the commission voted.
“Of course, public safety is important, and we want to support law enforcement. But, sometimes we have to stop and think out what are all the implications,” Olson said. “So, what I wish we would have discussed, instead of how quickly can we get police and sheriff deputies out for protests, maybe a better discussion could have been about engaging the community and ensuring we have a safe environment for people to peacefully and legally protest.”
Maintaining such a safe environment is top priority for everyone, both Hodapp and Olson said, including for protesters and demonstrators, property owners, the general public and responding agencies.
“It’s the job of law enforcement to protect everybody’s safety,” Hodapp said. “If there were a large group of protesters that showed up in some of these smaller areas, it’s not just the worry about the safety of local citizens, but the protesters, too.”
Olson said educating all parties involved, and the public, about the issues will be key in maintaining safety.
“My concern is when we’re looking at the potential for determining peaceful protests as a state of unrest,” Olson said. “If there are going to be protests in Beltrami County over pipelines, what we really need is for people to understand on all sides is that law enforcement is there to protect the rights of individuals to peacefully protest and demonstrate as well as to protect the rights of property owners. That they’re a neutral party there to keep people safe and not there to act as the security service for multinational corporations.”
Olson also acknowledged that while Line 3 doesn’t go through Beltrami County, protests could still happen near Bemidji.
“We’re the regional center,” Olson said. “We’re where the hotels are, where the people are. If people are coming up, they will be staying in the community.”
Attempts to reach various anti-pipeline groups on Thursday were unsuccessful.