ST. PAUL — Top law enforcement leaders on Thursday, July 9, said earlier deployment of National Guard members to assist in the response to protests, arson fires and looting in Minneapolis and St. Paul could've mitigated the damage that resulted in May.
It's the first time state law enforcement officers have chronicled in-depth their efforts to respond to the protests.
Tens of thousands of people took to the streets in the Twin Cities to demonstrate after former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin knelt on George Floyd's neck on May 25, resulting in Floyd's death. And after a night of initial protests, some demonstrators began setting fire to businesses and breaking into dozens of stores.
The fires and looting affected or destroyed 1,500 businesses and racked up more than $500 million in damages. Gov. Tim Walz has sought federal help from the Trump administration to rebuild.
Heads of the Minnesota National Guard and Department of Public Safety on Thursday told a Senate panel that their reaction lagged as civil unrest grew beyond what state officials expected and as National Guard officials attempted to reset plans to mobilize an appropriate number of members to address the scene.
Republican lawmakers on the panel were quick to critique the response, saying top officials should've stepped in sooner to limit the damage from the riots.
“I question whether you and the governor failed to recognize the threat to public safety in Minneapolis and St. Paul in time,” Sen. Scott Newman, R-Hutchinson, said. “Clearly the level of criminal violence was escalating rapidly.”
Minnesota National Guard Adjutant General Jon Jensen said he and other public safety officials on Wednesday, May 27, began preparing to deploy 200 service members to help respond to civil unrest in Minneapolis and St. Paul. But it became clear late Wednesday, as demonstrators started arson fires around Minneapolis and again Thursday, May 28, as people set ablaze the third police precinct, that more members would be needed.
"It immediately occurred to me that 200 wasn't going to be enough," Jensen said.
On Thursday, May 28, Jensen and Public Safety Commissioner John Harrington agreed to send in hundreds of members more than they'd initially planned. And they started preparing 700 trained guardsmen to get to the Twin Cities to respond to the unrest. The State Patrol, Department of Natural Resources and several local law enforcement agencies had already sent in additional officers to help Minneapolis and St. Paul police.
"My assessment of the situation is that it's not a light switch, it's not on or off, it's more like a dimmer," Jensen said. "It's on super bright Thursday night, our ability to begin dimming that light is what we were working toward."
Walz on Thursday, May 28, said he would call in guardsmen to help local law enforcement respond to the protests, fires and looting. And a formal written order came out early Friday, May 29.
And slowly, the enhanced presence began rolling out across the Twin Cities and gradually assisted in quelling the civil unrest. But less than 24 hours after sending out National Guard members, Jensen and Walz realized they needed a stronger presence. And early Saturday, May 30, they called on more than 7,000 members from around the region to respond.
At the same time, National Guard leaders began wondering whether their approach could adversely affect other cities if similar demonstrations cropped up there.
“While we were all focused on Minneapolis and St. Paul, we weren’t sure if Rochester or Duluth or Mankato or Bemidji was going to be the next Minneapolis,” Jensen said. “What happens if we are all so solely focused on Minneapolis that something in Duluth happens? We needed to have that opportunity to immediately respond.”
Guardsmen were later deployed to Moorhead to assist with managing civil unrest there.
Harrington said top law enforcement leaders thought initial demonstrations would end during that week and pick up again over the weekend following Floyd's death. And as they began preparations for demonstrations they expected could bring out 75,000 people that Saturday, other protests and riots picked up across the region, exceeding local law enforcement's capacity to respond.
“We’re not perfect, we don’t think we did this all right," Harrington told lawmakers. "There are lessons to be learned from those experiences and if we are smart, which I think we are, we are not going to have to go down that same road again."