Minnesota police proved their commitment to the war on terror before an international audience in September of 2008. At that time, 45,000 people were expected to fill St. Paul for the Republican National Convention.
Authorities designated the convention a National Special Security Event, and for as long as a year in advance, local and federal law enforcement spied widely on political protesters planning to fill the streets and noisily oppose the Republican Party’s agenda.
Officials viewed the demonstrators as a possible terrorist threat, and a county sheriff sought to infiltrate one group considered a leading protest organizer with personnel from his office acting as undercover agents.
Then on the eve of the convention, Sheriff Bob Fletcher’s team carried out a series of high-profile “pre-emptive” raids at buildings across the Twin Cities area of St. Paul and neighboring Minneapolis seizing laptops, cell phones, cameras, supplies for making banners and signs, maps and piles of political pamphlets. They also confiscated “caltrops,” steel points that can be placed in the street to deflate tires, which police implied protesters would use during the convention, according to later court affidavits.
Eight locals were arrested and charged with “conspiracy to riot in the furtherance of terrorism” based on a relatively new state law passed after Sept. 11 and used for the first time during the convention. The terrorism enhancements were eventually dropped, however, after a county attorney complained that they “complicated” the case. The eight defendants were still awaiting trial on lesser charges as of fall 2009.
Supporters of the group say they’re being criminally prosecuted for what amounts to political bluster – hotly rhetorical statements made on planning Web sites and elsewhere announcing dramatic protest actions on the streets of St. Paul.
On the one-year anniversary of the convention and in a partnership with the news Web site Minnpost.com, we published a 5,000-word narrative of police tactics used before and during the convention relying in part on documents obtained through open-government laws from Minnesota’s so-called “fusion center.”
Law enforcement agencies compile and exchange data about potential terrorist activities at the centers, and dozens of them have been established across the United States with the help of federal homeland security grants. Civil libertarians have expressed concern about police linking political activists to terrorism since the Sept. 11 hijackings. In a sidebar, we also examined the history of Minnesota’s unique privacy laws that regulate how police can use intelligence databases.
Separately, the state of Minnesota turned over limited records showing where local authorities in general have used federal anti-terrorism grants handed out by Washington over the last several years.
Those documents show that a years-long and costly effort to expand law enforcement data sharing in Minnesota known as CriMNet received a boost of at least $350,000 in federal funds during 2004. The grant spending records, which are available for download here, list fairly detailed transactions by county but are limited only to an earlier three-year period since recipients can actually spend the grants long after they’re first awarded and may take some time to do so.
For its part, CriMNet enables officials to swiftly retrieve driving histories and license photos, warrants, protective orders, Minnesota’s gang files and digital fingerprints, as well as details on potential suspects, witnesses and victims, not just data on those who’ve served time in jail.
Police and state agencies located in the Twin Cities also used readiness grants totaling approximately $500,000 to purchase surveillance and crime-busting equipment, from video cameras for Hennepin County, which surrounds Minneapolis, to “data-collection software” bought by Ramsey County, where St. Paul is located.
A March 2009 audit found that Minnesota’s grant overseer, the Department of Public Safety, inappropriately used $6,500 in FEMA funds for severance payments made to employees. The state also didn’t record 17 global positioning systems costing $136,000 in a fixed asset database to keep track of them, the report concluded. The devices were paid for with homeland security grants.
State officials promised to fix the problems in a response letter. But similar issues arose the year before when they struggled to locate thousands of dollars in communications gear bought with federal funds.