MINNEAPOLIS (WCCO) — St. Paul Police are giving credit to their newly formed Special Operations Unit for containing a protest Friday night that shut down Interstate 94.
The protest came just hours after the acquittal of Officer Jeronimo Yanez in the shooting death of Philando Castile. Eighteen people were arrested, but there were no injuries reported for either officers or demonstrators.
The incident bore resemblance to a similar protest in July that also shut down I-94 in St. Paul. At that protest, 21 officers were injured and 100 people were arrested.
Still, Friday’s protest was very dangerous. St. Paul police said their goal was to keep the protesters off the interstate, but when the crowd swelled to 2,000 people, they say only a massive show of force could have kept demonstrators off the busy highway.
Instead police relied on their new training to control the situation. Like last year, officers found themselves being taunted and cursed. As tense as the protest was, it paled in comparison to similar scenes last summer.
The July protest came just days after Castile’s death. It featured protesters hurling rebar at officers, who responded with tear gas.
It was after that demonstration that St.Paul Police formed their Special Operations Unit aimed at diffusing dangerous protests. Last September, WCCO visited a training session that featured both classroom time and simulations — with some officers playing demonstrators.
While St. Paul Police did not want to reveal all of their Special Operations strategies, some were obvious, like formations of officers pushing protesters back.
Commander Joshua Lego did say part of the training focuses on not responding to taunts.
“We train our officers that when people are expressing themselves, they are feeling pain,” he said.
Another emphasis: clear and constant warnings that protesters are endangering themselves and others.
In the end St Paul Police say those appeals worked – most people did comply and leave the interstate. Only 18 people were arrested, compared with more than 100 last year. More importantly, no one was injured — compared to 21 officers injured last year, some of them seriously.
The City of St. Paul is hosting listening sessions about the trial. There’s one at the Wellstone Center until 8 p.m. Monday and another Tuesday at the Wilder Foundation from 5 p.m. to 7 p.m.