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After seeing the recent updates and progress reports from Mayor Jacob Frey, in reaction to the Hillard Heintze Group's 2022 audit on the response to the May 2020 Minneapolis riots ("Mpls' chaotic reply to Floyd riots detailed," front page, March 9, "Minneapolis planning fell apart during riots, report says." StarTribune.com, March 9), I feel compelled to shed some light on the matter.
I believe the mayor is correct in saying that the city of Minneapolis is doing its best to improve preparedness and response to emergency events. However, the problem lies with the original audit, which falsely claims that Minneapolis, and more specifically the Minneapolis Police Department, did not develop any formal crisis response plans, nor engage in any formal planning efforts to respond to the protests.
The audit further stated that the MPD does not utilize the National Incident Management System (NIMS). I know this to be false as I was involved in the planning process for not only the response to the riots, but also all prior special events and major incidents in the past 10 or more years in my role as commander of the MPD's Special Operations and Intelligence Division.
I was interviewed by Hillard Heintze auditors prior to my retirement from the MPD in June 2021. However, it's clear that my input was not included even though I was one of the people closest to observing what occurred and I was involved in trying to obtain the needed resources to regain control in the city during the riots.
Background: Minneapolis and the MPD have a long and highly lauded record of planning and providing security for major public safety events, including some of the largest. Among these just in recent years were the Super Bowl, NCAA Final Four and Major League All-Star Game. All were major undertakings for a police department the size of the MPD, which at the time had fewer than 900 sworn personnel.
In each and every one of these public safety operations, the National Incident Management System (NIMS) was used successfully; I know because I authored many of the plans and coordinated the security efforts. In addition, the MPD, like most other large city police departments, had been dealing with large protests and demonstrations in the years prior to the George Floyd riots of May 2020. Our planning and response for each and every one of those protests used the incident command system.
In MPD, all of our supervisors have undergone Federal NIMS training as well as many of our line officers. In addition, all MPD command staff have undergone additional training on incident command and management. MPD has conducted numerous tabletop and live exercises on both command and control measures and front-line tactics.
While I can appreciate the sentiments put forth in the Hillard Heintze Group's audit about the problems with the response to the May 2020 riots, most of those problems resulted from a lack of leadership, hesitation and full reluctance by both local and state elected officials to bring forth needed resources immediately. I believe much of this occurred because what was being experienced was not something Minneapolis — or, for that matter, other cities throughout the world — had ever experienced before.
This is also the case with staff from the Hillard Heintze Group, most of whom are retired police, fire or emergency management personnel, who themselves have never experienced what Minneapolis went through during the riots of May 2020. I can say with full confidence that no one from the Hillard Heintze Group has ever experienced a riot of the scale and scope of what took place in Minneapolis and the metro area. I know this because I spoke with them and I am familiar with the background of the auditors.
To be fair, there are very few police departments and very few police officers anywhere in the world that have faced what the MPD did for 20 days.
In addition, in Minneapolis, some of our City Council members themselves relished the protests and riots taking place, and supported the violent acts and property destruction that was occurring. This fueled further violence and quelled any timely and necessary response required to get things under control.
After the death of George Floyd in May 2020, protests and, subsequently, violence began within hours. There was little time to plan. MPD did what it typically does, which is activate our command post, organize response personnel and set up the incident command system. But events in the city and throughout the metro area rapidly spiraled out of control and almost immediately exhausted all MPD personnel.
Our initial requests for mutual aid assistance were met with reluctance, not because neighboring police agencies were unwilling to assist MPD but because the riots were not confined to the borders of Minneapolis. They touched every area of the metro, meaning police agencies had to first assure the safety of their own cities before sending personnel to assist Minneapolis.
The violence, looting and fires spread to every corner of Minneapolis within hours of the death of George Floyd, making it impossible to gain control. The MPD could have been five times larger; it would not have mattered. We were, at that time, utterly overwhelmed. Typically, the MPD may have an intersection or two involved in a protest, or even violent looting. In this case, however, the looting, fires and violence were everywhere, all around us.
This is what the Hillard Heintze Group failed to recognize in their audit, because they themselves have never witnessed anything of this magnitude. No one had before 2020, at least not since the L.A. riots of 1992. The MPD at that time was doing everything possible to protect our own precincts which were all under assault, while trying to also respond to violence taking place throughout the city.
An example: I recall, on the second or third night of intense rioting throughout the city, leaving the command post about 3:30 a.m. and going to the intersection of Lake Street and Hennepin Avenue on my way home for a few hours' respite. When I arrived at Lake and Hennepin, in uniform and in my squad car, there was a traffic jam of vehicles driven to this area by people looting all of the retail establishments in the neighborhood. Hundreds of people were inside and outside of stores and I noticed two men fighting over a television set they had stolen. Many of the stores were on fire. It was literally a frenzy. There were no police resources available to respond to this because similar chaos was happening everywhere in the city. I was powerless to take any action for fear I would be killed by the mob.
Since the May 2020 riots, MPD has successfully organized the largest public safety operation in its history in response to the trial of Derek Chauvin. Operation Safety Net involved over 5,000 personnel from police departments and National Guard units around the state. All of these resources were in place prior to the trial. The difference is that this was a preplanned event, not a spontaneous surprise like the May 2020 riots.
The MPD has come under intense scrutiny for its response to the riots of May 2020. I will be the first to admit, the response was not good. It was not because of poor planning or the lack of use of NIMS, and certainly not because of any failure of the front-line MPD officers who were under physical attack for over two weeks. The officers who experienced this on the front lines will never be the same. Many have since left the MPD.
The response lacked, in my opinion, because of three primary factors:
First, a city and a department that were completely overwhelmed and outnumbered and unable to muster enough resources to gain control and stop the violence.
Second, hesitation and reluctance on the part of elected officials, specifically at the state level, who did not get Minneapolis the resources it needed in a timely manner, including the National Guard.
Third, a city government and elected officials who let their own outrage over the death of George Floyd outweigh the public safety needs of the citizens of Minneapolis.
Today, MPD is half the size it was at the time of the May 2020 riots. I struggle to believe that with a much smaller department, "The next time something goes down, we'll be ready." The only difference may be that maybe next time, elected officials will take the situation more seriously and not hesitate when the MPD asks for help.
Scott Gerlicher is the retired commander, special operations and intelligence division, Minneapolis Police Department.