A Nonsworn Community College Public Safety Department’s Lessons from Last Summer’s Minneapolis Civil Unrest

Here are Mark DeRee’s written answers to the questions that weren’t answered during his Campus Safety Online Summit presentation on the lessons Minneapolis College learned during last summer’s protests.

A Nonsworn Community College Public Safety Department’s Lessons from Last Summer’s Minneapolis Civil Unrest

Editor’s note: At the 2020 Campus Safety Online Summit held December 1 and 2, Mark DeRee — who is associate director of public safety at Minneapolis College in Minneapolis, Minnesota — discussed the lessons his nonsworn public safety department learned from last summer’s protests following the death of George Floyd. To view his original presentation, click here.

Although DeRee answered many of the questions that came in at the time, he didn’t have enough time to answer all of them. Below are his written answers to those questions that weren’t answered during the presentation.

Q: Did you ever utilize an emergency notification system to deliver alerts to your students, faculty and staff?

Yes, we did here is the emergency notification that was sent on May 28, Thursday.

Due to anticipated unrest in the downtown Minneapolis area, the Minneapolis College campus will close today, Thursday, May 28 at 3:00 pm. All buildings will be closed through Friday and the weekend. Administration will continue to monitor the situation and provide updates. Visit minneapolis.edu for campus open hours and for ongoing updates.

This message was sent via text, email and phone call to everyone in our emergency notification system which is Blackboard Connect. We also utilized the campus wide Public Address System to announce the closing and our Alertus System, which provided the same message via Desktop Monitor Takeover and LCD Monitor Displays around campus.

Q: Did you get any feedback from your students about how they felt about your security response?

We did not ask for any direct feedback from students about our security response to the protests. We did have several students, faculty and staff that asked about our relationship with the Minneapolis Police Department. Previously, we did hire Minneapolis Police Officers off-duty to support special events throughout the year depending on the risk associated with the events but have had no formal contract or agreement with the Minneapolis Police Department. Our College President and Leadership Team decided in June to not contract with the Minneapolis Police Department for any future off-duty event support. A message was sent to your campus community about this decision.

We have completed several safety surveys and these surveys have helped us gain insight into how our community feels about overall safety and security on campus. We will continue this practice in the future to continue to improve and become responsive to the needs of our campus community.

 Q: Did you not have any campus safety on past the curfew hours until the campus was unsecured or did you have staff there overseeing CCTV?

We did have staff (Director, Supervisor and I) onsite during the campus closure and past curfew to monitor the situation and our property, including the use of our CCTV system.

We are not a 24/7 operation. We have periods when we have no staff onsite. During this time, all of our buildings are alarmed with our intrusion detection system and we have personnel on-call that will evaluate alarms remotely via CCTV or respond to the campus, based on the situation.

We took a similar approach during the curfew and campus closure. The Public Safety Management team was onsite during the peak hours of concern, roughly 1100 hours to 0200 or 0300 hours each day. Collectively, once we determined the risk of our campus being impacted had diminished, we would complete a security round, double-checking our property and clear from the campus. We would then rely upon our intrusion detection system to notify our on-call personnel of any potential intrusion into the campus buildings.

Q: Do you feel that officers should be armed?

Currently, under our Minnesota State System Board Policy, we are not able to be armed. The Minnesota State Board of Trustees would first have to change the policy before we could determine if being armed is the right decision for our campus.

My personal opinion is being armed in this particular circumstance was irrelevant. Being armed versus unarmed in a civil unrest situation specific to our campus would not have made any difference or impact on our decision-making or the steps we took. In other situations, such as an active shooter, being armed greatly changes our response and decision-making.

Ultimately, it is a decision that will be made at a much higher level than me, and every campus is different in how that equation of armed vs. unarmed is evaluated and determined.

Q: Has your department since reached out to the police to develop a MOU so you can have access to their radio channels for these types of emergencies.

Unfortunately, as a non-sworn department, the Minneapolis Police Department will not allow us to monitor their radio channels during these types of emergencies. Understandably, MPD has to serve the whole city, and there would be dozens of businesses, colleges and institutions that would want to have the same access to MPD radio traffic. (For example Target HQ, US Bank HQ, Augsburg University, etc.)

We do have access to RadioLink. I touched on it a bit during the presentation but should have expanded on it a bit more. Here is some information about RadioLink: For everyone one law enforcement officer there are approximately 13 private security officers. The RadioLINK Security Communication Network is a force-multiplier that connects law enforcement with private security , outreach teams, and the Safety Communications Center via a common radio channel. The program currently links the private security teams of over 60 downtown buildings, businesses and venues; all looking out for you and your surroundings while you enjoy our city.

This RadioLink system is a valuable tool for security teams in the Minneapolis Downtown area to connect with MPD and with other buildings. This was helpful to monitor during the unrest and kept us informed on some of what was occurring within our vicinity.

Q: Have you considered becoming a fully certified law enforcement agency; would you have support from the college administration for this?

Minnesota is a bit unique in the fact that our Minnesota State Colleges and Universities System (Minn State) is the public, higher education system throughout the state with 37 colleges and universities, and there are no higher education police departments in the state except for the University of Minnesota system (UMN- Twin Cities, UMN- Duluth, UMN- Rochester). UMN can be a fully-certified sworn agency because they are a land grant institution and are granted the power to have a sworn agency through state statute. Currently, we (Minneapolis College) do not have statutory authority to become a sworn agency nor does the larger Minn State System.

Essentially, we would need a change in state law to allow the Minn State System to be authorized to form a sworn, law enforcement agency. Then we could determine if we would move toward becoming a sworn, law enforcement agency.

Practically speaking, this conversation would be had at a much higher level than my current position. Personally, there are pros and cons to the decision. We have some advantages to being non-sworn but at times especially with how the Minneapolis Police Department is struggling to maintain staffing, we would have some significant advantages to be able to maintain the safety and security of our campus. If we had sworn authority, for example, being able to arrest, cite and transport a chronic trespasser or conduct more in-depth theft investigations that the Minneapolis Police Dept does not have the resources for currently. Having sworn authority, we could provide a higher level of investigative and protective services to our campus community.

In the situation of civil unrest, if the entire system had a sworn department, we could have deployed resources to not only protect our campus but potentially assist with the civil unrest as another state resource just as our MN State Troopers and MN State DNR Conservation Officers did. Across all 37 Colleges and Universities, if you had a sworn agency, you would have approximately 100-125 law enforcement officers.

Q: How was PD working with the Fire Dept during periods when protesters were lighting buildings, etc. on fire? Was this also a sort of “you’re on your own” type of situation?

From what I observed via live streams, heard via police/fire radio traffic, and from social media, the Autozone across from the 3rd Precinct was one of the first buildings to be looted and a fire started. Police attempted to maneuver to secure the Autozone and get the Minneapolis Fire Department there to put out the fire. The situation escalated as the nights progressed to a point where the Minneapolis Fire Dept could not and would not respond without police resources for protection. I know St. Paul Police sent teams to escort and assist fire with security, but the situation was so widespread by the third night of unrest and there were so many fires, essentially the buildings burned until the morning when the security situation allowed fire department personnel to respond in with police resources and begin fire operations.

Based on all these observations, I knew that if we became a victim of an arson attempt, the fire department would likely not respond. So yes, this was a feeling of “we are on our own.” It was my belief though, that if we became a target, and a window or windows were busted out, some looting occurred and a fire was started. If the security situation was stable, we might be able to respond to the arson attempt and put out a small fire before it became larger, mitigating larger widespread damage. This would have been a highly fluid situation and very dependent upon what we thought was safe. Other buildings during the unrest were successful in this strategy. Their onsite security teams were able to secure their buildings from wider spread looting and also put out small fires before they became larger, especially during the Aug. 26 unrest downtown.

Q: When seeing looters running through campus, was your team able to capture images and video via CCTV to assist MPD with their investigations? 

Yes, we did have video and images saved from our CCTV that might be helpful to MPD in their investigations. We did our best to utilize our external PTZ cameras to capture as much video of things that were occurring around us during the unrest periods. This system was key for us to be able to maintain good situational awareness around our campus and extended beyond our campus footprint to see if anything was coming our direction.

I’m confident had we had become a victim of more widespread looting or damage, we would have been able to capture good quality images and video that would have been helpful in follow-up investigations because of the large investment we have made in upgrading and maintaining our CCTV system.

Q: If you have learned something from this incident, what will be the change for future incidents and implementation for your department?

Big question! Lots of lessons learned. I think I’ll go back to two of the key lessons that I learned.

1. It’s all about information or intelligence. Without good information and good intelligence, it is difficult for leaders to make good decisions. I believe that by having some practice in utilizing all the avenues of information gathering that we did (live streams, social media, scanner traffic, local media, etc.) We were able to have a decent understanding of the conditions on the ground as they might impact us. This included locations of unrest, tactics being utilized, such as arson, looting and the size of the impacts being witnessed. Thus, we were able to make good quality informed decisions about how to do our best to keep the campus safe and secure as the situation evolved and changed.

When it comes to implementation or changes, I see the real need to continue to invest and build capacity in the information gathering skillsets across the team. The need to implement training programs around open-source information gathering during in-progress events, evaluate technology that could be helpful for these types of situations, and running drills to see the competency of the team. We could have used more hands-on deck to keep abreast of the rapidly changing situation and that would be my change for next time. I would have more of the team present with the proper skillsets to help monitor the situation because you are drinking from a firehose of information.

2. The second lesson learned was the speed at which these situations can escalate. I understand now that with social media, these incidents can spiral FAST! As an organization you need to be able to know what is going on and how the situation is evolving. Be PROACTIVE, don’t have multiple layers of decision-makers that have to provide input because you won’t be able to respond fast enough. You want to try to stay ahead of the situation and anticipate what is coming next so you can get ahead of it. We learned that we needed to push the decision-making power downstream to those on the ground who had the best information possible.

As far as implementation or changes goes, we have had this discussion with campus leadership, and they have the trust in our team to make the decisions we feel we need to make to keep the campus safe. Our team can institute a shelter-in-place, school evacuation/closure, or take some other action that we feel is necessary to keep the campus safe in real-time. Had school been in full-session, we would have had to act much faster to either shelter-in-place or evacuate and close the school. This is a priority in making sure when we return to “normal” school operations, we have that plan ready and practiced.

Q: Was your formal EOC activated? What was their role?

No, we did not formally activate the EOC during the unrest. I think this was for a couple of reasons.

  1. We were operating in a COVID environment where the majority of the campus was operating virtually, and we do not have a formal location for an EOC. We tabletop working in an EOC environment in many different locations as we don’t know what type or where the emergency would impact.
  2. We were able to brief leadership, which makes up the Emergency Operations Team, via mostly through text messages, but we did have some video briefings.

Had we had damage or become a victim to the looting or arson that was occurring, I believe we would have formally entered an EOC environment to manage the response/recovery.

Q: So, based on your firsthand experience, do you agree with the movement to defund the police?  Please explain.  If there would have been incidents on campus, what would have been the response from the members of your team?  Just let the havoc continue?  Would your members have felt comfortable putting themselves in the “line of fire” especially given that there would not be any aid from the police?

Based on my first-hand experience, “defunding” the police is a very politically charged statement that needs to be broken down and evaluated. It all depends on what one believes that statement means. We are learning that the police are a necessary public service to maintain a safe environment, but I personally believe there should always be a process for examining how and why things are done. Can we put resources toward better mental health response? Can we invest in violence prevention programs meant to interrupt the cycle of violence? Can we invest in better training programs and hiring processes for police officers? I don’t see it as a yes or no, it is a very complex and dynamic environment, and it demands constant discussion and continual examination.

If there had been incidents on campus, our response would have greatly depended upon the level of the incident and whether or not we could safely respond. For example, had someone broken a window and started a small fire inside and then ran away, I believe we could have responded effectively and put out a small fire. This would have mitigated further damage in this scenario. This scenario happened to some buildings, and they responded as described above, mitigating a lot of damage. If there were crowds of hundreds smashing windows, looting the campus buildings and starting fires, our response would have been very different. Stay locked down, observe via CCTV, notify emergency services, and as a last resort if needed we would have blended in with the crowd and moved to a safe location to get out of the area. Letting havoc continue would have been a very case-by-case basis.

When you ask if my team members would have felt comfortable putting themselves in the “line of fire,” we only had the Public Safety managers (Director, Supervisor and me) on campus. We did this on purpose because we didn’t want to put the team members in a situation that was potentially unsafe. We all felt comfortable with being on campus and doing what we felt we safely could do to protect the property of the campus, but ultimately our safety was the priority.

Q: Any conversations around campus officers equipped with body cameras?

Yes, but we are part of a larger system of colleges and universities (Minnesota State System). A decision to equip campus officers with body cameras would have to come from the System Office and would need approval in policy and clearance from General Counsel. We have to ensure compliance with Minnesota Data Privacy Statutes and FERPA regulations.

Q: To your knowledge, were these riots/attacks coordinated?

Based purely on my outside observations of the events and experience, I would say there certainly seemed to be elements within the groups that were communicating and instigating. I believe it was loose communication, and much of it was organic just simply based on group/riot dynamics. One element that seemed to be a communicated tactic was spreading law enforcement resources thin. The night that the Mpls Police Third Precinct was abandoned, the police were dealing with three very large protests spread in different areas and multiple splinter groups throughout the city that were looting and starting fires.

Here is an interesting link you might find worth reading. It is an anonymous submission discussing and analyzing the tactics used to cause the “fall of the third precinct”: https://crimethinc.com/2020/06/10/the-siege-of-the-third-precinct-in-minneapolis-an-account-and-analysis

You’ll notice in the link it talks about the Telegram application and its use for group members to communicate without being “intercepted” by police. Again, this speaks to the fact that some coordination and communication was occurring amongst individuals/groups.

Q: Was anyone on your team freaking out at the beginning? Mostly how was everyone on the campus and team prepared mentally?

I would say no, I’m very lucky to lead a team of very experienced Public Safety Officers, and many are retired from law enforcement. This experience showed in their analysis of the situation, and they have always shown the utmost ability to be calm under stress and in high-intensity situations.

I would say though that the events of the unrest have impacted them all in different ways, and no doubt, many have said they wish they could have done more help.

I don’t think any of us anticipated the level of unrest and intensity of the events that occurred. Were we mentally prepared for what occurred? I think it has been a progression of processing the events as individuals and as a team. Frequent conversations and discussions have occurred that have helped the team mentally work through the events.

Q: Was everyone that you needed to talk to (executive policy group, EOC team, etc..) on campus, or were some working virtually? If so, how did you communicate and record those discussions for later if needed to refer back to them?

Everyone was working remotely (Emergency Operations Team). During this time, the only people working on campus were Facilities and Public Safety. We communicated to the leadership and EOT team primarily through text message groups. This was the most efficient and effective way for us to communicate with the larger group. We did do some virtual meetings to brief leadership on what we knew. We did not “record” these discussions except for my notetaking.

Had we officially activated the EOC environment to manage the response/recovery, we have scribes who are responsible for notetaking and record-keeping for documentation purposes.

Q: Was there an announcement made for students to evacuate?

No, we never needed to send an evacuation announcement.  We did send a notification to all students and employees via our emergency notification system that we were closing campus for the first period of unrest. This was sent out via email, text, and phone call.

During, the second period of unrest in August. Our Public Safety Supervisor knew we only had two classes onsite and was able to connect with those classes directly to get them evacuated. Additionally, we utilized our public address system to announce the closing of the campus early. We also utilized our internal radio system to communicate the campus closure with the employees on-site.

Q: Was there ever a consideration to arming your management team with proper approvals?

Currently, the Minnesota State System (Minneapolis College is a member of this system) has a board policy that does not allow employees to be armed. This board policy would have to be amended before we would have the option to be armed.

In this particular circumstance, I’m not sure being armed would have provided us any additional options. Had the college become a target for property damage, being armed would not likely have given us any more options than what we currently had at our disposal. In an active threat situation, being armed would be a scenario where our response would change radically from our current response.

Q: While formulating your lessons learned, was there any discussion about the “rules of engagement?”  Since local first responders were not available, how far would you go to protect life and property?

Yes, there were discussions about “rules of engagement” amongst the three of us who were onsite. The reality is we knew there was very little we could do at the moment. The majority of our engagement would have been after the incident happened. For example, had a small group or individual broken into the building, we have a Public Address System where we could have made an announcement to see if we could get them to leave while monitoring via CCTV. Had they started a fire and then left, if we felt it was safe and we were capable, we could have responded with fire extinguishers to put out the small fire before it grew (some buildings did this). Our safety was always the priority and had the worst case scenario occurred with 100s of looters running around the buildings and starting fires, we had a plan to blend in with the crowd and get to a safe location. We knew we would have not been able to protect the property from this type of situation.

Q:  Were you using personal social media accounts?  If so do you have any concerns that you might be tracked and subject to a cyber harassment or attack at a later time?

No, we have department accounts that we specifically utilize to monitor social media from trainings we have attended around social media monitoring and usage. The majority of our social media is not for engagement but is for investigations.

Q: Why would you go into a “Lockdown” versus a “Lockout/Secure” action?  Was there a violent event on campus occurring?

This is a good question and it would have entirely been dependent on the situation and proximity. In the first period of unrest that I talked about, we were operating in a sparse campus environment with COVID, which is essentially a lockout environment with very tight access control in comparison to what would have been “normal.”

When I describe a lockdown, we have 19 publicly accessible doors during normal times. These doors require manual locking, thus we have very little capacity to lockout/secure our campus. We first have to lockdown the environment from an internal perspective. We would begin working to secure and lockout, but the first step for us would have been “stop movement.” Keep everyone where they are and have them secure themselves as best they could until we are able to complete a lockout.

We did not have any violent action occurring on campus, but the other reason we would be in a lockdown situation is we would not want our students or employees leaving and ending up in the middle of a violent unrest situation.

Q: You’ve mentioned monitoring live streams several times. How did you locate these streams, and were they via social media or some other platform(s)?

There are a couple of ways to find live streams. Youtube is a common source of live streams. You can filter to find live videos. Another we used was Twitter, where you can search for live streams. From Youtube, there are often videos that show multiple live streams at once. From there if you want to view a particular live stream, they are generally labeled and you can find that individual stream on the platform.

To view DeRee’s original presentation, click here.

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