Other’s opinion: Minnesota makes belated strides on civil unrest planning

Published 6:30 am Saturday, October 24, 2020

Getting your Trinity Audio player ready...

Star Tribune

Depending on your frame of reference, “Man plans, God laughs” is either a Yiddish adage or a song by Public Enemy. Or maybe it’s a quote by Woody Allen.

Whatever its origin, it expresses a truth that informs this recent statement from John Harrington, Minnesota’s commissioner of public safety: “I would be foolish to try and go on record and try to guarantee safety. I can’t do that.”

Email newsletter signup

Harrington was talking about the multiagency planning effort underway to prepare for Minnesota’s next round of big urban protests, should they occur and become other than peaceful. He added, “I will tell you that we are moving very quickly forward with plans … to try to make sure, if we had more civil unrest, or we had more protests that were getting out of control, that we would have a robust law enforcement approach to responding to that.”

Such a robust approach was notably lacking during the chaos that erupted in Minneapolis and St. Paul last May. As spasms of violence engulfed Lake Street, University Avenue and other areas, law enforcement and civilian authorities seemed hesitant, confused and unprepared. Gov. Tim Walz appeared sluggish in calling out the National Guard after a request from Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey. A police precinct burned; scores of businesses were damaged or destroyed.

It might seem harsh to hold public officials accountable for the chaos that followed the death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police. Yet the dynamic that led to Floyd’s death was not unique. It followed a pattern that was all too familiar, and therefore all too predictable.

In the months since those riots, Minnesota’s leaders have had opportunities to refine their approach. Former police officer Derek Chauvin’s release on bail was one such opportunity; another came when a suspect’s suicide on Nicollet Mall was misperceived as a police shooting. It is easy to foresee more such potential triggers: The presidential election on Nov. 3 is one, and the eventual trials of Chauvin and three fellow former officers are others.

Election security demands immediate attention, given recent reports of armed poll observers being recruited by an out-of-state firm. They are among the factors that warrant keeping the National Guard on alert.

Thankfully, the planning that Harrington described seems to be a credible step toward righting the deficiencies that emerged from the summer’s turmoil. State and city officials are working to establish better lines of communication among various law-enforcement agencies.

Less tractable problems remain. The Minneapolis Police Department is losing officers and needs to replenish its numbers. The technology that runs the 911 emergency dispatch system is outdated. But the stubborn nature of those shortcomings does not justify a failure to prepare.

The multiple crises that have plagued the Twin Cities and other urban areas this year may have been unanticipated, but they were not unpredictable. Citizens have a right to expect that their leaders will prepare for the unthinkable and devise systems that are nimble enough to respond. God may laugh, as the saying goes, but people should plan, even so.