St. Paul police call communication key to convention peace
By Gregg Aamot
MINNEAPOLIS — Borrowing from a European model, Minneapolis and St. Paul police hope to quell any disruptions at this summer's Republican National Convention by exchanging cell phone numbers and offering other olive branches to demonstrators.
About 10 police officers - all schooled in hostage negotiation techniques - met with U.S. Justice Department officials and a handful of community peace workers Wednesday at a police academy in north Minneapolis to review the strategies.
The officers, dubbed "dialogue officers" or "free speech liaison officers," have been asked to open communication lines with activist leaders at the convention, which will be held Sept. 1-4 at the Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul.
The hope, in part, is that the officers will be able to stay on top of any escalating violence or other problems and alert other officers or peaceful demonstrators.
"The whole goal is to try and reach out to groups that are going to protest. We recognize their free speech rights, but the concern on our end is that we don't want anybody to get hurt or have any property damage," said Bill Blake, a Minneapolis officer taking part in the initiative.
Blake said officers have been contacting groups they believe are planning to demonstrate. He said he went to a meeting of the Welfare Rights Committee, explained the initiative and handed out his card but was rebuffed.
"There's a lot of anger out there," he said.
Indeed, activists said they were skeptical of the approach.
Meredith Aby, who plans to march with the Coalition to March on the RNC and Stop the War, said the group was contacted by police but refused to participate. The group's planned march on the first day of the convention is expected to attract 30,000 to 50,000 protesters.
"We're interested in doing our own marshaling and peacekeeping. We're not interested in exchanging our phone numbers or doing joint training with police," she said.
Open-dialogue methods have been used - successfully, police claim - at events in Europe, including an April 2007 NATO meeting in Oslo, Norway, and a June 2007 G-8 summit in Rostock, Germany.
Minneapolis and St. Paul police said their officers have discussed the methods with police in Britain, Canada, Estonia, the Netherlands, Germany and Norway, according to a news release from St. Paul police.
Police tactics and the use of surveillance on protesters were criticized at the 2004 Republican National Convention in New York City. More than 1,800 people were arrested at the four-day convention at Madison Square Garden, where President Bush accepted his party's nomination for a second term in office.
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