In the early morning darkness of May 31, Duluth Police officers formed a line in the street in the vicinity of 27th Avenue West and Superior Street. Protesters there had grown more agitated, tensions were flaring, stones and bottles were being thrown at officers and their vehicles, and police had received a report of shots fired. Officers twice asked those in the crowd to disperse. When they didn’t, tear gas was effectively deployed.
Surely, these brave officers were wearing and using the $80,000-plus of protective gear the city of Duluth purchased for them last year amidst much controversy and debate over its use. The so-called “riot gear” was intended for just such a moment of unrest, right?
Actually, any report of its use on May 30-31 was “inaccurate,” Duluth Mayor Emily Larson made clear at a press conference later that same morning on the steps outside Duluth City Hall.
“What was deployed was not recently purchased riot gear,” she said. “That is not what was deployed last night.”
Some officers did wear face shields, and it was good that they did with the spread of the coronavirus still a very real and deadly threat; officers were spit on during the tensions. The officers with the face shields were from the Duluth Police Department’s 20-member tactical response team, and the equipment they used “they’ve had … for many, many years,” the mayor said.
Duluth Police Chief Mike Tusken said in an interview with the News Tribune Opinion page that Duluth’s officers would have been “totally justified” in using the newly purchased equipment early on May 31. It’s meant to protect the safety of officers so they can protect us. In fact, he said, the equipment was “staged” and ready to go at an undisclosed location downtown.
The gear was very consciously and deliberately not used earlier in the day on Saturday, May 30. Demonstrations and protests then in response to the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis were peaceful. Duluth Police very intentionally did not want to present themselves as combative or confrontational. The decision was made early for officers not to be seen in helmets, chest protectors, and other padding, Tusken said.
Then, later that night, when the situation escalated quickly and called for a stronger show of force, there wasn’t time for officers to retrieve the gear.
“We couldn’t mobilize to do it,” Tusken told the Opinion page. “The reality at that point was, ‘Well, this is what we have. This is what we’re going to do to be safe.’ … While it was certainly justified, we just couldn’t disengage and re-engage. We knew we needed to take action.”
Duluth’s Policy 432 — "Crowd Management and Control" — dictates use of the protective equipment. It offers order, specifying its use only after no police response has been tried first, then after an invited uniformed police presence for observation has been tried next, followed finally by appropriate uniformed police response.
The policy guards against a militarization of the police by stipulating that our officers still be clearly identifiable as from the "Duluth Police Department." And it ensures accountability with a body camera as part of the gear and conversations after each use of the gear between the department and the city's Citizen Review Board, a police-oversight body.
"We can be allies afterward, which I feel is very critical and important," Archie Davis, president of the Citizen Review Board, told the News Tribune Editorial Board in an interview in February. "I couldn't ask for anything better than what I see in this policy. ... We've put together something that's really solid."
So solid that Tusken said then that, "It may very well be one of the best policies on deploying protective gear you'll find anywhere in this country. That's because there was so much time and thought that went into it. … The process was as much about educating on police concerns as it was for the police to hear community concerns and then melding a policy together that protects both. When I read it, I was amazed at the level of detail and also how comprehensive it was. … The primary or foundational reason you have a police department is to protect people's civil rights, their human rights, their constitutional rights. And while we may be police officers who are supposed to facilitate that, we also are citizens. The First Amendment is near and dear to our hearts. It's important for us to make sure we all have the ability to continue to express our opinions peacefully."
On May 30-31, Duluth followed its model policy. And with positive results quite unlike what happened in Minneapolis and elsewhere.