Dakota County law enforcement train on protest response

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Civilian protesters took to the streets holding riot signs and shouting chants last weekend in Dakota County.

The volunteers were actually part of a mock demonstration for a county law enforcement training session. The exercise was meant to help officers learn how to properly respond to civil unrest and how to properly protect public safety and property.

Jim Iliff, a sergeant with the Dakota County Sheriff's Office, served as an emergency preparedness coordinator during some drills at the Saturday, Oct. 14, training.

There were five scenarios of civil disturbance or mock civilian protests. Volunteer protesters held faux protest riot signs and pretended to protest outside the county maintenance grounds near Dakota County Technical College in Rosemount.

Officers dressed in riot gear learned how to disassemble a protest and how to properly respond if there is an officer down or injured.

"We are trying to make it as close to real as possible because you have seen the news in Minnesota and across the country, and so it is obviously an issue we need to work on with training, and we are trying to make it as realistic as possible and obviously you have to do some things that are artificial or that you simulate, understanding there is no real use of force," Iliff said.

The mission of the first-of-its-kind training is to help law enforcement respond and protect properly, while learning ways to diffuse tensions that allow peaceful protests.

During the training scenarios, a drone flew overhead to capture footage that will be circulated for local police departments to train officers on how to properly respond to protests.

Prior to the mock scenario training, volunteers were asked to relinquish smartphones to eliminate any potential use of camera or videos that could be shared and miscommunicated to the general public.

Volunteer Tiffinie Miller of Rosemount decided to give her time and serve as a civilian protester. "I want to give our emergency services the opportunity to prepare and practice and not only to protest as citizens of the county, but this is an awesome opportunity to meet the folks that are here to protect and serve," Miller said.

There was no request for training from the state or federal government, but there were members of the Dakota County Exercise Design Team who believed the training is needed.

The team includes representation from different jurisdictions or agencies in Dakota County. The members come from the sheriff's office, public health and Dakota County Communications, along with cities within the county.

"Every year we are trying to bring in a large exercise," Iliff said.

Last year the group was trained how to respond to a severe weather event. It concentrated the response to a series of F4 tornadoes. The training included response, damage assessment training and mass shelter training.

The five-hour training gave law enforcement five scenarios that could happen as part of large types of protest or civil disturbances.

Volunteers in green shirts served as citizens who were headed off to jail as role players because they broke the law. Mock protesters were asked to throw softball and tennis balls that could simulate bricks, mortar and steel rods.

"We have a right, a First Amendment right, to protest but we do not have a right to destroy public property and we are not to break laws; we need to stay on the sidewalk," said Rick Schroeder, a training leader, during the exercise. "In the next evolution, our protesters are going to have their hands locked together and they will be called into separate them just like you would see on the freeway."

Dave Wilske, deputy Hastings police chief, attended along with two other Hastings police officers.

"It was excellent because any time our officers from different departments train toward one goal it is always beneficial," Wilske said.

Serving as an incident commander, Wilske said: "Even though every agency trains a little bit different, the core concepts are the same."

The more realistic training for officers, the more fluid the response will become. Even though there have been no reports of civil unrest in Dakota County, they see protests occurring elsewhere in Minnesota and across the country.

"Now that we are seeing a great deal of civil unrest, but we must as law enforcement remain neutral and our priority is protecting property and protecting a group of people," Wilske said.

Can training prepare officers to be ready mentally to stand strong against harsh words shouted or things thrown at them personally during a heated civil protest that may not be civil?

"Our officers are pretty good at that and not taking it personally," Wilske said. "The message, from my perspective, is that we always want to plan for worst and plan for the best outcomes," he added.

Because Minneapolis will host the Super Bowl, Wilske said local departments are working to be ready to respond to any request.

"Not to say that we will have an event that will come into Dakota county, but we may need other agencies to come and help assist. I thought Dakota County did a great job of job of setting up and a fantastic job of bringing people together and setting up quality scenarios," Wilske said.

"We all watch the news and we all see the civil unrest and you do not know when it may come to your county or town."