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Our View: Let police protect themselves -- and us

No matter who you might blame, you'd be hard-pressed to deny there were boiled-over tensions, raw emotions, and, subsequently, violence that marred last year's pipeline protests at Standing Rock in South Dakota.

With clashes between law enforcement and those calling themselves "water protectors" already escalating here in the Northland over Enbridge's proposed Line 3 Replacement Project, Duluth Police can be supported in its attempts to take necessary, "just in case" steps to protect officers — who then would still be able to protect us as well as those protesters who choose to demonstrate peacefully.

The Duluth Police Department plans to purchase more than $125,000 of equipment over the next two years, pieces like helmets, leg pads, knee pads, chest protectors, elbow pads and other gear officers can don during dangerous situations. Those plans were discussed at a recent budget presentation with Duluth City Council members and Police Chief Mike Tusken. A News Tribune story about the presentation was in Monday's paper.

Even though the initial, $83,700, first-year purchase of the gear was included in a budget passed by councilors, the actual expenditure still requires council action. That can come after an inclusive and appropriate public-input process.

"In Duluth we've got a long history of engagement and public dialog. ... On an issue with a lot of passion, we can wait to hear everyone's comments," Tusken said in an interview with the News Tribune Opinion page this week. "The greatest resource our police department has are the people in this community."

Those in the community and from elsewhere who may fear that the mere presence of the new protective equipment could prove too tempting for Duluth officers, causing them to escalate what otherwise might be nonvolatile situations, can take comfort in Tusken's reassurances to the contrary. He gets it.

"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," the chief said in Monday's story. "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."

Reassurance that the equipment wouldn't be misused here is also in the most recent time Duluth police put on such gear. That was in 2012 when white supremacists clashed with a large group of counter-protesters at the Duluth Civic Center. Police talked to both sides first, urging peace, but, almost immediately, snowballs started flying. Quick arrests quelled emotions.

"Just think if we did nothing, and then that escalated," Tusken said. "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 (then) of course there's going to be one, right?"

Not with appropriate police response, the sort Duluth's department demonstrated that day.

Appropriate equipment is needed, too, even if, hopefully, it never has to be used.

"The best way to look at this (purchase of gear) is as an insurance policy for us at a time when we're seeing more demonstrations," Tusken said in Monday's paper. "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."

The expenditure is a small price to pay to ensure such safety.