St. Paul trying to avoid RNC civil rights suitsby Elizabeth Stawicki, Minnesota Public Radio
St. Paul officials hope early planning will help them avoid lawsuits like those filed against the New York City after it hosted the Republican National Convention in 2004. New York police arrested more than 1,800 people. There were so many arrests in such a short amount of time that the legal system couldn't keep up. Hundreds of those held are now suing the city for violating their constitutional rights. St. Paul hopes to avoid a repeat of that situation when it hosts the Republican National Convention in September.
St. Paul, Minn. — Four years ago New York police used orange mesh nets to conduct mass arrests during the Republican Convention, mostly for disorderly conduct and parading without permits.
The city held those arrested in a former bus depot that detainees called "Guantanamo on the Hudson" because they didn't know when they'd be released.
The city held so many people that it couldn't process them within the required 24 hours. And even though most arrests were for minor offenses, court papers say police took the time to fingerprint and photograph the people who were arrested.
A judge ordered the city to charge or release more than 560 people. The Manhattan District Attorney later dismissed charges against more than 200 people. Family and friends waited outside a court building demanding their release, chanting, "Let them go! Let them go!"
Brooklyn College political sociology professor and author of "City of Disorder," Alex Vitale said the city failed to distinguish between lawful and unlawful free speech protests.
"I saw large scale arrests of people who were protesting legally on the sidewalk or were gathering in anticipation of a forthcoming protest," said Vitale. "And over 90 percent of the charges against people arrested during the RNC were either dropped or resulted in acquittals."
Six hundred people are now suing the city of New York for violating their constitutional rights. Some say they were simply walking down the street when police snared them in their nets. Others were held in custody beyond 24 hours, not knowing their charges. The lawsuits seek damages, attorneys' fees, and changes in police arrest policies.
St. Paul authorities say they're keenly aware of these suits. St. Paul City Attorney John Choi said he met with prosecutors from other cities including New York to learn from their mistakes.
"One of the biggest regrets one prosecution office was not to communicate and work with the police department and get a mutual understanding of what kind of charges would be appropriate in various fact scenarios," he said. "So we took that advice to heart and we've been working with our St. Paul police department to make sure we're all on the same page."
St. Paul Assistant Police Chief Matt Bostrom said he also talked with other police departments including New York about what they could have done better.
He said one of the recurring themes that led to invalid arrests was a lack of communication between prosecutors, police supervisors and the officers on the street.
But just last week outside the Barack Obama rally at the Xcel Energy Center, St. Paul Police officers mistakenly arrested an anti-war protester for a First Amendment-protected activity. The man was handing out pamphlets about an anti-Iraq war march on the RNC in September.
Bostrom said the officers apparently thought the man was violating an ordinance against peddling near the Xcel Energy Center.
"Again we feel badly that it happened," he said. "We've apologized as often as we can. This was an oversight."
Bostrom said that incident brought home the need for better internal communication in St. Paul, particularly on delicate issues like free speech.
To avoid invalid arrests during the RNC, the department is forming teams to plan for different scenarios and how officers will respond. For example, police may respond differently to five people who decide to sit in the street compared to 50 or 100.
Bostrom said these teams will not only communicate plans to all levels of the department before the RNC, they'll practice them, and be on hand as experts for other officers during the RNC.
"If there's a question, here's who you should call and actually here's who you have to call," Bostrom said. "When it comes to these kinds of issues we're trying to improve our communication internally so that officers have a better understanding and when in doubt who are the people you need to call on those kinds of things."
In the event of mass arrests, Prosecutor John Choi said his office will be ready. He said prosecutors' offices in Ramsey County and Minneapolis will help if necessary.
For minor infractions people will be cited and released with a later court date instead of being held in custody like in New York.
The court system has also prepared a plan to deal with mass arraignments, if necessary. Ramsey County Judge Tom Mott said one courtroom at the Law Enforcement Center in St. Paul will handle RNC-related cases only leaving another court for other kinds of cases. After 5 p.m., the second courtroom will open to RNC cases
"It would then be able to be scaled up after the daytime hearings," he said. "And once the routine calendars were covered then we would expand it into that second courtroom at the Law Enforcement Center. Then, the potential is to run into evenings and night sessions. And what we're looking at is the ability to, 24 hours, essentially run three shifts of staff and judges through."
Some sources have said it's possible the Ramsey County Sheriff might move some inmates from the Ramsey County Jail to outlying jails during the convention week to free up more jail space.
The sheriff would not confirm or deny that.
The Ramsey County jail can hold up to 600 inmates. Authorities say they really don't think St. Paul will see the same kinds of mass arrests as in New York, but they want to plan nonetheless.
The lawsuits in New York could go to trial next spring.
- All Things Considered, 06/10/2008, 4:54 p.m.