Volatile confrontations between law enforcement and protesters have some Twin Cities officials rethinking their approach to unrest — and about taking a step back.
At the center of the strategy is a plan to quickly deploy what officials call “anti-scale fencing.” It could go up quickly around law enforcement and other facilities if they’re confronted by potentially dangerous protests, like the violence that destroyed the 3rd Precinct police station in Minneapolis in 2020 and the clashes with protesters in Brooklyn Center after the fatal police shooting of Daunte Wright last April.
Plymouth Police Chief Erik Fadden is helping lead the effort to make such fencing quickly available. He says he and other departments appreciate the public’s right to protest and gather, and don’t want to stop that.
But he says departments also "have a duty to keep protesters and officers, and everyone, safe." Of the fencing, Fadden says, “we just need to keep the peace every chance we can.”
He says fencing could make for less police on the ground, more distance between them and crowds, and less chance of violence or force by all involved.
The idea started among police chiefs in Hennepin County and has since been joined by departments all over the Twin Cities, according to Mark Ray, public works director in Crystal. He’s also helping organize the effort. He said the anti-scale fencing eventually went up in Brooklyn Center last April, but only after days of unrest and face-to-face confrontation.
“Fencing had a huge role in calming things down, especially in Brooklyn Center, in response to the protests there, and just really de-escalating it,” Ray said in an interview.
But he says there’s a catch: as things stand now the Twin Cities can’t put it up quickly, “because the nearest vendor of anti-scale fencing is actually in Chicago.”
The same type of temporary barriers first appeared in the Twin Cities more than a decade ago, surrounding the Xcel Energy Center during the 2008 Republican National Convention. Variations have since been installed around the federal courthouses in St. Paul and Minneapolis, and around government buildings during the trial of former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin for the killing of George Floyd.
The fencing usually features welded metal frames, with small-opening steel mesh welded to the frames and fastened together in long rows. They usually have wide bases that make them difficult to topple, particularly with crowds standing on the bases in front of the fencing. Unlike chain-link fencing, the anti-scale fencing — while porous and see-through — doesn't afford any easy grip to climb, to pull down the fencing or disassemble it.
But it is also exponentially more expensive than chain-link, and rarely needed.
Fadden, the Plymouth police chief, said damage like the destruction of the 3rd Precinct in Minneapolis could be catastrophic for a suburb, where police departments are often co-located with all the other offices that keep a city running.
“There's a small number of people that are intent on destruction and mayhem and not being peaceful. People who take that a step too far, into property damage or violence,” he said in an interview.
He also said that a hand injury to one of his officers, who responded to the unrest in Brooklyn Center last year and was hit with a thrown brick, will likely end the officer’s career. Fadden said it will likely make for a very expensive disability claim.
Close-quarters confrontations like those in Minneapolis have also resulted in serious injury from non-lethal police munitions, not just to protesters but also to journalists and bystanders. Those, too, have led to costly legal claims.
The plan now is to assemble a coalition of Minnesota cities to chip in, since none can afford to pay for such a contingency themselves. The group would likely sign a contract with one of two major vendors that rent out and install the fencing, to essentially subsidize a stash of the panels to be kept the Twin Cities.
Ray, the public works director in Crystal, says it’s the only practical way to deploy the fencing on short notice for what are called “no-notice” events, like protests or civil unrest. Hauling the fencing and equipment in from out-of-state simply takes too long, he says.
For now, the plans only call for enough fencing to protect police facilities, since they’ve been shown to be the focus of such “no-notice” events so far. Ray says officials handling high-profile trials at courthouses and big events like political conventions usually have time to plan for their security, and can wait for out-of-state equipment.
Both DFL and GOP lawmakers have also filed bills to have the state help pay for the effort, at the request of cities working on the plan.
You make MPR News possible. Individual donations are behind the clarity in coverage from our reporters across the state, stories that connect us, and conversations that provide perspectives. Help ensure MPR remains a resource that brings Minnesotans together.
Donate today. A gift of $17 makes a difference.