National guard troops, Brooklyn Center Police Department

National Guard troops guard the Brooklyn Center Police Department during a period of protest following the April killing of Daunte Wright. (Sun Photo by Andrew Wig)

In rejecting a resolution proposed April 27, the Hennepin County Board opted not to condemn the use of chemical weapons and less-lethal projectiles against demonstrators.

The 4-3 vote came amid heightened discussion of such tactics in light of the law enforcement response to protests over the April killing of Daunte Wright in Brooklyn Center and the May 2020 murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis.

Boardmembers who voted against the resolution noted it would only be a symbolic act, and that such a proposal requires more discussion.

“We’re actually not doing anything. It’s a statement which sounds good, but it’s not good enough for me,” said District 1 Commissioner Jeff Lunde, of Brooklyn Park.

The County Board does not have authority over the Hennepin County Sheriff, who is an independent public official, County Administrator David Hough explained.

In voting against the resolution, Lunde was joined by District 5 Commissioner Debbie Goettel, of Richfield; District 6 Commissioner Chris LaTondresse, of Hopkins; and District 7 Commissioner Kevin Anderson, of Maple Grove.

Though sympathetic to the spirit of the resolution, Lunde criticized the proposal for not involving the Sheriff’s Office and exploring the full consequences of the measure. “I like where people are coming from on this resolution. I don’t know why we didn’t talk to the sheriff’s department. That’s my frustration,” Lunde said.

The resolution was sponsored by District 2 Commissioner Irene Fernando, of Minneapolis, and District 3 Commissioner Marion Greene, of St. Louis Park. District 4 Commissioner Angela Conley, of Minneapolis, joined them in supporting the proposal.

“The way law enforcement has treated our residents is despicable, and I morally and ethically condemn the use of chemical irritants and less-lethal projectiles on any crowd,” Fernando said.

After hearing criticism of the proposal, Fernando refused to add any qualifiers to the condemnation of less-lethal force such as rubber bullets and tear gas. “I unequivocally oppose the use of chemical irritants and less-lethal projectiles on any crowd for any reason,” she declared.

The resolution notes that the International Committee of the Red Cross and the Geneva Convention both ban use of chemical weapons in war. The resolution also cites a University of Minnesota study that documented “severe bodily harm” caused by less-lethal projectiles that were used in 2020 in Minneapolis. Those injuries, suffered by bystanders including youth and peaceful protesters, included blindness and traumatic brain injuries, the resolution notes from the U of M study.

“We’re talking about people being subjected to some horrific injuries. I’ve seen them personally,” said Conley.

Handling the 1%

While 99% of the demonstrators protesting the death of Wright in front of the Brooklyn Center Police Department were peaceful, “there were people who were inciting violence there,” Goettel said. “ … They opened the gate. They were climbing the fences. They were throwing rocks, concrete, bottles. They were firing fireworks on our folks, and many people were hurt on the other side – our officers, our deputies, our patrols.”

Lunde asked what recourse law enforcement officers would be left with if the less-lethal tactics were prohibited in all crowd-control scenarios, even violent situations. “I’ve heard comments by people saying that it’s OK if we let things burn. Then the board should say that in this resolution,” he said.

Anderson, too, stipulated that there are scenarios in which the less-lethal tactics must be allowed. “We cannot permit our law enforcement to retaliate against protesters, peaceful protesters, but they have to have the tools in their toolbox to take care of violent situations, which do exist,” he said.

Both Anderson and LaTondresse brought up the Jan. 6 U.S. Capitol riot as an example where the tactics under discussion could be necessary. “I think many of our residents would agree that some of these tactics, in fact, should have been used, for example, during the capitol insurrection,” LaTondresse said.

For LaTondresse, that incident brought up another question: “Why do we use these tactics when certain types of residents are protesting, and not use these tactics when our Capitol Building is being stormed? That’s a fair conversation. Let’s have it.”

LaTondresse voiced support for the “motives and spirit behind the concerns raised in this resolution,” and said he has told law enforcement that “I believe we have to exercise extreme discretion when we use the tactics described in this resolution.”

That means, he explained, “not using these tactics unless there is a clear, imminent threat” to residents, property or the democratic process.

LaTondresse said he’s told county law enforcement partners, “I believe some of these actions taken over the past several weeks did not meet that test.”

Greene has also spoken out about the law enforcement response in Brooklyn Center. “I’ve been, over the years, increasingly uncomfortable with the increasing militarization of public safety functions,” she said. That concern came to a head when the events in Brooklyn Center unfolded, she added.

The Sheriff’s Office is already addressing questions of proper crowd control, Goettel noted. “I know that the sheriff is working on de-escalation tactics,” she said.

While a resolution condemning the less-lethal tactics would not directly affect law enforcement policy, it is within the County Board’s scope to take a stand, supporters of the resolution argued.

“I think that our board has responsibility here to comment on and to codify how we feel about these types of use of force,” Conley said.

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