Saint Paul closes roads, increases security at start of federal case
The federal civil rights trial of three former Minneapolis police officers indicted in connection with George Floyd’s death in 2020 began on January 20 with jury selection at the federal courthouse in downtown Saint Paul. The trial has resulted in road closures and parking restrictions that began on January 18, and could end up costing the city an estimated $2 million in police overtime salaries and other expenses.
Former officers Thomas Lane, J. Alexander Kueng and Tou Thao face federal charges of abusing their roles as police officers to deprive Floyd of his constitutional rights with the use of unreasonable force. Former officer Derek Chauvin, who pinned Floyd down for more than nine minutes, was found guilty of murder last year. Chauvin in late 2021 pled guilty to the civil rights charges.
U.S. District Judge Paul Magnuson is presiding over the trial of the three officers, which is being held at the Warren E. Burger Federal Building, 316 N. Robert St. Opening statements began on January 24. Saint Paul City Council members have expressed frustration that the trial is being held there instead of in Minneapolis. Saint Paul’s federal courthouse is smaller and is located near schools and day care centers, as well as many businesses, offices and homes.
“I don’t know why this trial is being held in Saint Paul,” said Ward 2 council member Rebecca Noecker. She cited the disruption that the trial could cause due to protesters and expressed hope that the city could get reimbursed by the federal government or the city of Minneapolis.
Saint Paul Police Chief Todd Axtell is seeking reimbursement for security costs from the federal government. All city departments have been asked to track all costs related to the trial. It is unknown what the final costs will be, but media reports indicated that Hennepin County spent about $3.7 million and the Minneapolis Police Department around $2.9 million on overtime pay during Chauvin’s trial last spring.
“I don’t know why this trial is being held in Saint Paul,” said Ward 2 council member Rebecca Noecker. She cited the disruption to downtown that the trial could cause due to demonstrators and expressed hope that the city could get reimbursed by the federal government or the city of Minneapolis.
The trial of the three officers comes at a time when a short-staffed Saint Paul Police Department is coping with the latest surge of COVID. As of mid-January, the department had 92 employees on sick leave, said Assistant Chief Robert Thomasser. The department’s current staffing level is 547 officers, but only 520 can be deployed.
“The biggest challenge is trying to work through our staffing challenges. Of course the COVID surge isn’t helping us,” Thomasser said.
The police department has cancelled staff vacations in February and has shifted personnel around to cover the trial. It also is activating its agreements with other law enforcement agencies in the East Metro Response Group. The group formed in 2021 in preparation for Chauvin’s trial and includes law enforcement agencies from Ramsey, Washington and Dakota counties.
Thomasser has assured council members that the response group would work at Saint Paul’s direction and follow the police department’s practices. “We don’t arrest people who are trying to express their first amendment rights,” he said.
Several city departments are involved in planning and response to the trial. Twelve subcommittees are working on issues ranging from command and control to public engagement.
During the trial, there will be increased police staffing in downtown. Thomasser said officers would act more as “ambassadors” at that time, helping people get around and responding to issues as needed.
Once a verdict is announced, the Police Department is expected to be ready for any demonstrations. While that is a time when there is the most risk, Thomasser said, the department does not anticipate problems.
Saint Paul officers will have the strongest presence close to the courthouse and a designated public gathering space. Thomasser said the plan is not to have a heavy police presence. “You won’t see people with helmets, you won’t see people with batons,” he said.
Preparations have been underway for about two months, Thomasser said. Fencing went up around the federal courthouse early this month.
Beginning January 18, Robert and Jackson streets between Kellogg Boulevard and Fourth Street were closed for the duration of the trial. Parking on the north side of Kellogg, from Cedar Avenue to Robert, also was restricted, and the Capital City Bikeway on Jackson Street was closed.
The City Council on January 12 approved the closure of the skyway between the Pioneer Endicott Building and the federal courthouse to the general public. The city’s Skyway Governance Committee recommended approval of the closure.
Ramsey County’s Downtown Service Center at 160 E. Kellogg Blvd. was temporarily relocated to Suite 2500 on the skyway level of Metro Square, 121 E. Seventh Place, as of January 18. The center’s overnight emergency shelter will remain operating on a referral-only basis.
Metro Transit bus and light-rail Green Line schedules could also be affected by events related to the trial. Metro Transit riders can check metrotransit.org and sign up for rider alerts.
Information and updates about road closures, parking restrictions and other activities outside the courthouse will be posted on the Saint Paul Police Department’s website at stpaul.gov/departments/police.
COMMENTS TERMS OF SERVICE
The Villager welcomes comments from readers. Please include your full name and the neighborhood in which you live. Be respectful of others and stay on topic. We reserve the right to remove any comment we deem to be profane, rude, insulting or hateful. Comments will be reviewed before being published.