East Grand Forks police are aiming for more leeway to respond to protests and other civil unrest throughout Minnesota.

Police Chief Mike Hedlund is asking East Grand Forks City Council members to approve a mutual aid agreement that would, in perpetuity, allow the city’s police officers to head to any other law enforcement agency in Minnesota that asks for their help. It’s a move proposed with pipeline protests in mind: Without such an agreement, elected officials must formally ask for help and their counterparts in another city would need to formally approve sending it. With that agreement in place, the decision would be left to East Grand Forks’ police chief.

“The reality is that, by the time any of these boards is able to gather to formally approve the mutual aid, the event that requires the assistance is likely to already be over,” Hedlund wrote to council members Nov. 19.

The city’s police force already has other, similar agreements in place that form a regional drug task force, for instance.

“But this would be a little bit more all-encompassing,” Hedlund told council members on Tuesday. Police departments and sheriff's offices across the state put together the agreement because of “the events of 2020” and “expected issues related to Line 3,” Hedlund told council members.

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If approved, the agreement would be one of several among Northwestern Minnesota law enforcement. Ten other cities in the area, including Crookston, Thief River Falls, Roseau and Warroad are considering -- or have already approved -- similar agreements.

One of the earliest adopters is Beltrami County, where elected officials OK'd an agreement similar to the proposed one in East Grand Forks in February 2018.

Then-Sheriff Phil Hodapp said the county’s agreement is intended to respond to “protest activities” in the area, meaning protests against Enbridge Energy’s plan to replace its aging Line 3 oil pipeline. Environmentalists and American Indian activists fiercely oppose the Canadian energy giant’s plan, but, thus far, protests have largely meant signs and marches or, at their most disruptive, temporarily disabling existing oil infrastructure or hampering prep work on the replacement line.

The worry among Minnesota police is that Line 3 demonstrations could become reminiscent of the Dakota Access Pipeline ones near Bismarck in 2016. Those calling themselves "water protectors” occupied land through which the pipeline would run and, ultimately, were dispersed by police after months of protests.

“The Morton County Sheriff’s Office was dealing with 10,000 people that cropped up in the middle of the prairie,” Hodapp told Beltrami County Commissioners, who approved the agreement by a vote of 4-1 in February 2018.

But one of those four “yes” votes later said he regretted it. Reed Olson, whose district encompasses virtually all of Bemidji, told the Bemidji Pioneer that he wasn’t sure he and his fellow commissioners understood the power they’d given to their sheriff.

A similar agreement made it easier for East Grand Forks police to head to Bemidji during a Donald Trump rally in September and would make it easier for other cities to send officers to a city that was struck by a natural disaster. Olson’s worry, he told the Herald last week, is that those agreements could militarize police response to protests.

“What's important is that we have proper protection for people that are peacefully protesting,” Olson said. “It is important to have a certain level of law enforcement present, making sure that there aren't spats or whatever, fights between civilians that have differing political views on the pipeline, say, but I just worry about having a heavy-handed response to just people demonstrating in general.”

On Tuesday, No.v 24, the only objection to the East Grand Forks agreement was from council member Marc DeMers, who worried that it might not be reciprocated by larger cities’ police forces. DeMers said he also worried about giving up a small chunk of city council oversight without some kind of guidelines in place, especially if police officers were called to a disaster -- or protests -- that took weeks or months of their time.

“If we could facilitate some kind of internal policy to ... augment this, I would be in favor of it,” he said.

Hedlund said he had no problem drafting a city-specific policy that would require him to speak to the city’s mayor or city administrator before heading to another city under the hypothetical aid agreement.