Four Black Lives Matter protests cost police $250,000
ST. PAUL -- Law enforcement spent about $250,000 last year on four Black Lives Matter protests in St. Paul. The unpermitted marches have called for justice against police misconduct, and have blocked roads and public transportation. But BLM St. P...
ST. PAUL -- Law enforcement spent about $250,000 last year on four Black Lives Matter protests in St. Paul.
The unpermitted marches have called for justice against police misconduct, and have blocked roads and public transportation. But BLM St. Paul’s lead organizer, Rashad Turner, says he believes police are wasting money on peaceful protests.
Law enforcement agencies have been gearing up for BLM St. Paul’s next planned protest. The group has announced it would hold a “nonviolent shutdown action” at Red Bull Crashed Ice on Saturday if their demands are not met.
Black Lives Matter St. Paul has vowed to disrupt large events before. It did so in advance of the Minnesota State Fair and the Twin Cities Marathon, but the events carried on and police made no arrests during the protests.
Law enforcement responded by deploying large number of officers to patrol along the protest routes. For four protests in St. Paul last year, the city’s police department spent nearly $123,000; the Minnesota State Patrol about $94,000; and Metro Transit police nearly $30,000.
“What it comes down to is public safety - protecting people’s right to protest, and protecting the public and protesters in that process,” said Sgt. Mike Ernster, a St. Paul police spokesman.
Turner said departments should be using the money they spend on protests to benefit the community, such as providing more training for officers to interact with people who are mentally ill.
Christopher Uggen, a University of Minnesota sociology professor who is a criminologist, said police departments need to do a balancing act when it comes to protests.
“The police are really charged with maintaining public safety, so there is a great and urgent need for them to be visible in such events, but it can’t suppress speech or have a chilling effect on peaceful demonstrations,” he said.
Overall, the protest costs are a fraction of the departments’ budgets.
The St. Paul Police Department’s general fund budget last year was $86 million; spending $122,805 for four protests amounted to less than 1 percent of the budget.
Meanwhile, St. Paul spent $216,000 last year to settle 13 lawsuits that named the police department (the city does not admit liability when settling suits). Most of the claims alleged misconduct and/or constitutional violations, which is the focus of the Black Lives Matter protests.
The most costly protest in St. Paul last year was one held by Black Lives Matter Minneapolis on Martin Luther King Jr. Day.
Marchers attempted to walk onto Interstate 94 at Snelling Avenue but were met by a large number of State Patrol troopers. The month before that protest, in December 2014, a BLM Minneapolis demonstration had shut down Interstate 35W in Minneapolis.
In St. Paul, the marchers continued to the Capitol and held a rally outside. BLM Minneapolis said 2,500 people participated; St. Paul police put the number at 500 to 700.
The State Patrol spent $61,858 on troopers on regular duty and others called in to work overtime, said Lt. Tiffani Nielson, a State Patrol spokeswoman. The agency said last year that it assigned about 100 troopers to the event.
“Every protest is dynamic, and troopers are allocated to those protests based upon several factors: size of group, likelihood of impact to the safe movement of traffic on freeways or highways, proximity to the Capitol complex involving security concerns, and other information that may be available in advance,” Nielson said in an email.
St. Paul police had 134 officers working at the MLK 2015 protest at a cost of $26,710 in overtime, according to the department. Metro Transit police sent 19 officers and spent $8,454 for officers who were on duty and working overtime.
At the time, BLM Minneapolis’ Lena K. Gardner said: “The choice of law enforcement to deploy excessive numbers of officers is reflective of the larger problems that we are trying to highlight, of overpolicing and that communities of color, specifically African-Americans, are not inherently criminals and not inherently violent.”
Plan for unknown
When a police department does not know what protest organizers are planning, police respond by “planning for everything,” Ernster said.
St. Paul city code says a permit is required for any demonstration, rally or gathering of more than 25 people in a public place. City Attorney Samuel Clark said the point “is to manage public safety - not to punish people for peacefully exercising their First Amendment rights.”
BLM St. Paul does not seek permits for its protests.
“If we’re having to demonstrate to create awareness … our last concern is getting a permit,” Turner said.
A group that regularly holds protests in St. Paul, Pro-Life Action Ministries, obtains permits from the city. The police department generally uses on-duty officers to patrol at those rallies, Ernster said. He said there might be some overtime costs when the demonstrations draw large numbers, but the price tag is significantly less than what they’ve incurred for unpermitted protests.
“The police know that they don’t need additional details out there to deal with anything, because we’ve been doing it for a very long time - 35 years or so,” said Brian Gibson, the ministries’ executive director. “Even if we’re below the number that’s required for a permit, we certainly are letting the police know we’re going to do something … so they know what to expect.”
Turner said BLM St. Paul usually talks to the police department in advance of protests “to go over any safety concerns they might have and making sure there is accessibility for disabled or elderly people.”
Does Turner think his group’s announcements that its protests will “disrupt” events lead police departments to send many officers?
“Sometimes we can all get caught up in rhetoric versus the reality,” Turner said. “We intentionally use language to wake people up, but we also use language to let people know we’re going to stay peaceful and exercise our First Amendment right.”
The protest that St. Paul police spent the most on last year was at the marathon, before which BLM St. Paul initially said they would “disrupt” the finish line. Turner said in the days before that demonstrators would not interfere with runners, and the marathon went on without incident.
St. Paul police spent $55,261 and had 152 officers working overtime at the October protest, and Metro Transit about $8,000 on 114 officers working overtime. The State Patrol spent $28,104.
Before each protest, police determine how many officers to send based on the kind of event it’s paired with (say, the marathon or the State Fair), how many people could attend both the event and the protest, and whether there could be counterprotesters, Ernster said.
Crashed Ice drew 140,000 people last year. As of Thursday, nearly 70 had indicated on Facebook they would be part of BLM St. Paul’s “Black Ice” protest. In the past, small numbers of counterprotesters have shown up during Black Lives Matter protests in St. Paul.
The St. Paul ordinance about permits says that, if possible, on-duty personnel will police events. If the police department determines additional police protection is needed, the permit applicant is to pay for police services, the ordinance said.
Ernster said he’s not aware of the department having to charge permitted protests for police services. That’s because the department gets enough information from organizers to plan for proper staffing levels, Ernster said.
Other events that require staffing by officers on overtime are billed to the organizers. For example, Red Bull Crashed Ice paid $62,309 for police services last year, Ernster said.
Clark, the St. Paul city attorney, said he is unaware of any provision of law that would allow the city to bill for the costs of responding to an unpermitted event.
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