Senate Committee Hearing Investigates Law Enforcement Response to Columbus Statue Destruction

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By: Sheila Regan

The joint committees on transportation and public safety continued hearings on the topic of the unrest following the death of George Floyd on Wednesday, with a focus on the toppling of the Christopher Columbus statue. 

Led by  Senator Scott Newman (R, Hutchinson), chair of the transportation committee, the hearing began, as had the previous hearing about the unrest the joint committee held a week ago, with an extensive video of news clips about the Columbus statue going down, and the response by Governor Tim Walz as well as Lt. Governor Peggy Flanagan, who had wrote on Facebook, “I can’t say I’m sad the statue of Christopher Columbus is gone. I’m not.” 

The hearing included two testifiers, Colonel Matthew Langer, chief of the Minnesota State Patrol, and John Harrington, commissioner of the Minnesota Department of Public Safety. 

During the morning session with Langer, Republican senators questioned Langer about the incident on June 10, when protesters toppled the Christopher Columbus statue in front of the Minnesota State Capitol. The protest had been announced at around noon that day on Facebook through an event page co-hosted by the AIM of Twin Cities & AIM Patrol of Minneapolis, and the Native Lives Matter Facebook pages. Langer said the Facebook post stated it would begin in Minneapolis, but the protesters arrived at the capitol much earlier than anticipated, at about 5 p.m. 

According to Langer, his team had a “plan a” and a “plan b” for responding to he protest. “Plan a was to engage with whoever did arrive and discuss expectations and discuss our role and hope that would work,” he said. “Plan b was to have 35 troopers in their turtle suits ready should Plan a prove not to be successful.” 

Republican Senators grilled Langer about the decision not to make arrests that night. Langer confirmed that the state patrol made no arrests on the night of the protest, but that three individuals have been investigated by the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension, with their file submitted to the Ramsey County Attorney’s Office. 

As to the reason there were no arrests, Langer said the volatility of the crowd led to that decision. “It was a strategic decision that was made,” he said. “This was a volatile situation that had the potential to get extremely ugly.” 

According to Langer, the June 10 protest was’t the first time the state patrol was alerted to the threat of damage to property. “We swelled our staffing at the capitol to considerable numbers after George Floyd’s death. There was at least one credible threat during the memorial week,” he said.

The Republican senators also asked Langer in various ways if the decision to not make arrests came from above. Senator John Jasinski (R, Faribault) said people in his district think there was an ulterior motive to not the lack of arrests. “$153,000 in damage in front of all the news channels, and no arrests were made… That really makes me angry to see what happened,” he said. “People think a decision was made above you to stand down.”

Langer responded to Jasinski and numerous other Senators that he was not told by his superiors to not make arrests. 

Responding to these accusations, Senator Scott Dibble, (DFL, Minneapolis) praised Langer. “Langer is to be commended for handling the situation in  way that minimized the danger to themselves, and the danger of creating a larger negative dynamic,” he said. 

After a lunchtime break, the hearing reconvened with Commissioner Harrington, who was also questioned about the decision to not make arrests. 

For example, Senator Jeff Howe (R, Rockville), said, “It seems like the more volatile and angry the crowd or the protesters are, the less likely it is they are going to get arrested, is that what I’m hearing?” 

Harrington replied, “No, it depends on criminal intent and what we believe the criminal intent is.” 

Later in response to a question by Senator Andrew Lang (R, Olivia), Harrington reflected that he would have liked better information about what was coming on June 10. “That often times colors the decisions that we make,” he said. Harrington also said that he didn’t have information about the American Indian Movement being an active protest group. “The recent history of AIM was not one where they were activity engaged with criminal destruction of property,” he said. 

Following the questioning of Harrington by Republican senators, Senator Melisa Franzen (DFL, Edina) repeated what she had said at a previous hearing about the George Floyd protests, and that is that the hearings miss the real issue of how to prevent further incidents like George Floyd’s death. 

“We can talk about public property,” Franzen said. “We have to have rule of law. But we also have to go back and talk about the root of the problem.  Let’s have a hearing about why that happened. Why George Floyd died. We haven’t had that.” 

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