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Duluth police to purchase riot gear

Duluth police officers wear riot gear during a protest by the Supreme White Alliance at City Hall in downtown Duluth in March of 2012. (News Tribune file photo)

The Duluth Police Department plans to purchase about $83,700 worth of riot gear next year and another $41,500 in 2019.

Items on the shopping list include helmets, leg/knee pads, chest protectors, elbow pads and other protective equipment.

"We call them turtle suits, because they make you look like those turtle guys," quipped Duluth Police Chief Mike Tusken, making an apparent reference to the animated armor-clad Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.

But there's nothing funny about the sorts of situations that would prompt police to deploy such gear.

"The best way to look at this is as an insurance policy for us at a time when we're seeing more demonstrations. We need to be better positioned if we have civil disturbances to better respond and keep not only of course our citizens safe but also our officers," Tusken said.

During a recent budget presentation, Duluth City Council President Joel Sipress said he hopes the new equipment will be used with discretion.

"I know that the Duluth Police Department has resisted the trend in a lot of law enforcement agencies toward increased militarization, which I personally appreciate. But I think we've also seen in other law enforcement agencies that the access to this kind of equipment sometimes becomes the justification or pretext for its use. So we've seen an increase in the use of this kind of equipment and this kind of force in cases where it wasn't previously considered necessary, which in some cases actually magnifies or makes the civil disturbance worse than it otherwise would have been," Sipress said.

Tusken assured Sipress: "It doesn't mean that because we have this equipment, we'll necessarily feel the need to use it, because any time you deploy your officers in that equipment, it's usually as the result of an extremely dangerous situation. So we would not deploy this gear lightly, because sometimes it does in fact aggravate what might otherwise be a peaceful First Amendment protest.

"But recently, in the last two years, we've seen the inability of police to be able to maintain peace and order in what started out as peaceable First Amendment rights protests that have gone in a terribly bad direction."

At present, Duluth police have access to a shared cache of enough riot gear for 20-some officers, but Tusken said much of the equipment is mismatched and out-of-date.

He said the new equipment will allow about 100 of Duluth's 150 officers to suit up, if necessary. The force also will undergo "mobile field force training" to learn more about how to handle potentially difficult crowd situations.

Tusken said Duluth police last geared up for the serious risk of crowd violence in 2012 when a small group of white supremacists calling itself the Supreme White Alliance clashed with a large group of counter-protesters at the Civic Center.

"That was a good example of what we do. We talked to both sides. We implored people to listen. This is First Amendment speech. We don't want to have any violence," Tusken said.

"Yet, it barely got off the ground before snowballs started flying. Then we had to shelter the SWA (Supreme White Alliance) with our people, and we did end up making a number of arrests," he recalled.

"As soon as we started putting handcuffs on people, it dispersed and people snapped back into order. The civil disturbance and related behavior stopped," he said

For Tusken, the incident demonstrated the value of swift police intervention.

"Just think if we did nothing, and then that escalated. After throwing snowballs for five minutes, while the police did nothing, what's the next thing that could have happened?" he asked.

But the demonstration also showed how police can exercise judgment in assigning riot gear.

"We made sure our officers were in regular uniform. We did give them helmets and eye protection, but otherwise, we didn't have riot batons. We didn't have shields. We didn't want to have the appearance of expecting a fight, because sometimes the psychology is: Look at the cops. They're looking for a fight, and of course there's going to be one, right?" Tusken said.

While Tusken recalled local police projecting an appropriate outward face, he said they were also prepared for the possibility of a more violent conflict emerging.

"What people didn't see is we also had the Superior Police Department Emergency Response Team inside City Hall. So we had reinforcements there, should things go badly, and they were ready to take on a larger disturbance," Tusken said.

But there are other situations where he said an initial show of force by police can be useful. He pointed to lessons learned from the recent protest violence in Charlottesville, Va.

"One of the critiques was that had the police been more decisive in taking definitive action against some of those initial skirmishes that started, they may not have seen that escalation of violence," he said, describing the value of deterring crowd violence through a forceful presence.

"We all know that the psychology behind mob gatherings oftentimes is that there's strength in numbers. So there's an erosion of the sense of order when people say: 'Well, we broke the picture window here, and the police across the street didn't do anything. Now we threw a brick at someone, and nothing happened.' So at what point does that escalate to the point where people think, this is a free-for-all and there are no rules?" Tusken asked.

Tusken observed that conflict seems rife in today's environment.

"Nationally, what I see is we're a very polarized country. People have different views on environmental issues, different views on race relations and certainly different views on politics. It seems as though because of this tremendous polarization, there's no middle ground," he said, making it sometimes challenging to maintain the peace.

"It seems as though when people dig in, they're so passionate about their concerns in these protests. They're so certain that they're right and the other side is wrong that they have no tolerance for one another," Tusken said.