By Mike Kaszuba
When military helicopters suddenly began swooping through St. Paul on a summer night in 2014, the city’s top officials appeared to be caught off guard as the training exercise scared and angered citizens.
“Three military helicopters are buzzing my building,” wrote an alarmed Dick Anderson, who lived in a downtown St. Paul high-rise and contacted the city shortly after 9:00 in the evening on Aug. 18. “I’m on the 27th floor and can look down on them. Its outrageous.”
That evening and the next morning were marked by confusion as city officials tried to ascertain what was happening and who knew about the exercise, according to new documents obtained by Public Record Media (PRM), a St. Paul non-profit.
In the newly released documents, Mayor Chris Coleman’s deputy mayor, Kristin Beckmann, described one City Council member as “pissed” and another as being “in a tizzy” over what had happened. The mayor’s environmental policy director contacted the Metropolitan Airports Commission to see if it knew about the helicopter maneuvers.
Even St. Paul’s then-public school superintendent joined in. “We got helicopters flying around downtown buildings. What is going on? We are so freak[ed] out,” Valeria Silva wrote in an e-mail. When she was told the helicopters were part of a Department of Defense drill, Silva e-mailed: “Omg. Super freaky.”
New documents released
The chaos surrounding the nighttime flights was described in more than 225 pages of correspondence that PRM received from the St. Paul mayor’s office. PRM had previously made public documents regarding the 2014 military exercise, which indicated that military officials had been in close contact with local police. Those documents also showed that – while both Coleman’s office and Minneapolis Mayor Betsy Hodges were briefed in advance – most residents were not informed and caught by surprise.
While the earlier documents obtained by PRM focused on the correspondence between military officials and local police in Minneapolis and St. Paul, the newest records detail the largely negative reactions of citizens who began calling city officials in St. Paul as the nighttime flights began. The records also chronicle the attempts by the St. Paul mayor’s office to respond to the controversy.
Training focused on urban combat tactics
The 2014 military exercise involved the Naval Warfare Development Group, a special forces component of the U.S. Navy, and focused on urban combat tactics. A similar training event had been held in the Twin Cities in 2012.
A Department of Defense [DOD] document, previously obtained by PRM, outlined the government’s rationale for using “real-world” locations by explaining that “urban environments are the most complex and difficult to emulate on federal property,” making urban areas desirable for training.
In an April, 2014 e-mail, the Minneapolis Police Department’s Jonathan Kingsbury stated that the training “has been briefed and approved by the Mayor’s office — and is being hosted by the SWAT [Special Weapons and Tactics] officers” in that city’s police department. A key DOD document also provided guidance on how to engage local officials. “To the maximum extent possible, local civilian officials will be briefed in person,” the document stated.
In Minneapolis, the military’s initial outreach to Hodges was via letter, and was followed by a February, 2014 visit by Navy officials. Documents obtained by PRM showed that military personnel also met directly with St. Paul’s deputy mayor in early 2014 because Coleman was out of town at the time.
Training begins with little notice
The military began its urban warfare training exercise on a Monday night in mid-August with little advanced notice to the public. As complaints came in to his office, Coleman was irked that the flights had not been announced in advance. “This is insane — they never let anyone know. WTF?” he wrote in an e-mail on the day after the first flights. “We did this five years ago and let everyone know. Folks were still unhappy but they at least knew they weren’t being invaded.”
As the mayor complained privately, many members of the public were shaken, according to city phone call logs obtained by PRM. One caller said that her “whole house was shaking.” Another asked, “are you trying to terrorize the people of Saint Paul?” Still another said, “this isn’t a war, this is ridiculous.”
One woman living on Robert Street contacted the mayor’s office and wrote, “the noise was deafening and rattled my windows.” Another caller said, “in our West Side neighborhood, the din is loud, constant, and continues late into the evening.” And yet another stated that they were “alarmed at helicopters at 11 pm while children were sleeping.”
Robert Humphrey, a city official, told the mayor’s press secretary: “I think it’s safe to say people are ticked.” Humphrey would later e-mail that the military training had “made the dog bark” at his own home, and that the helicopters had given him an unsettling feeling because “[I] don’t like feeling like an extra in Black Hawk Down,” a reference to a movie about an American military helicopter mission.
Anne Hunt, the mayor’s environmental policy director, was among those who contacted Beckmann late Monday night, the first night of the training exercise. “Do you know what the helicopter maneuvers [are about] over Upper Landing and Irvine Park tonight? Several of my neighbors are asking,” she said. “The helicopters are hovering so low that I can see people in the choppers,” Hunt added. “Got to say that if feels like a military state. What’s going on?”
The Mayor’s office responds
The next day, Aug. 19, Coleman’s deputy mayor tried to deal with the fallout. “This helicopter thing is killing me,” said Beckmann. “The military exercise story is behind [the racial unrest story in Ferguson, Mo.] as one of the top stories on 10 pm news on all channels,” she noted. “I talked with all of the [City Council members] except [Dan] Bostrom today to see where they were at,” Beckmann wrote in an e-mail. “[Council member Chris] Tolbert told me how pissed he is. He claims some of the building owners who had to give permission for the repelling obviously knew about the exercise. So he’s mad that some people knew and others didn’t.”
That same night, Beckmann was hoping however that the worst was behind. “Unless another night of copters [we] could be past this,” she wrote in a late night e-mail to Tonya Tennessen, another mayor’s office official. “Let’s hope tomorrow is better.”
But many — including Beckmann — wanted the answer to a key question: Who knew beforehand that the military training was about to begin? “I want to know who authorized them,” Karl Karlson wrote to the city, echoing the sentiments of many other citizen commenters.
Beckmann reached out to Rick Larkin, the city’s emergency management director. “Rick did you know about the navy seals doing testing in St. Paul last night[?] Apparently the helicopters were very loud and people were alarmed. I have a call into [St. Paul police] but this info should have been shared so we knew how to prepare,” she wrote. However, Larkin stated that he was also was in the dark. “Not informed,” he wrote back. “Not involved, not asked for input.”
On the day after the first flights, Todd Axtell, then a St. Paul assistant police chief, messaged the City Council, saying, “I am sorry that not everyone was up to speed on the timing of the drills. [I] can tell you that there was no intent to keep anyone in the dark or jeopardize public safety in any way.”
By 11:00 that same morning, Coleman’s press secretary had drafted a response to be given to those calling or e-mailing to complain. While the draft acknowledged that the mayor’s office was aware that the training would take place, it not-so-subtly blamed the Department of Defense and police in Minneapolis and St. Paul for not communicating with citizens. “The Mayor’s office was aware of these ongoing training exercises led by the Department of Defense,” the statement read. “Saint Paul and Minneapolis Police, along with the Department of Defense, were in charge of communicating with residents.” The statement added that while the public “was not at risk”, the DOD had issued an apology for “causing any unnecessary alarm.”
The city revised the statement four hours later, and the new version did not mention that the mayor’s office knew the training would take place. While again stating that local police and the DOD were in charge of telling residents, it added that “security concerns do not allow for exact times and locations for the training to be released,” and noted that training would continue for three more nights.
According to records obtained by PRM, those calling or e-mailing the mayor’s office by Thursday of that week received the following response:
“Thank you for contacting my office regarding the recent helicopter sightings. These were part of a Department of Defense-led exercise similar to one conducted here in 2012. Saint Paul Police are not taking part in the training but are in place to ensure public safety. For more information, you can visit [a website] or follow the Saint Paul police department Twitter handle for continued updates through Thursday evening, when the exercise will conclude.” The message was signed: “Sincerely, Mayor Coleman.”
Resident Michael Buelow, who contacted the mayor’s office on the third day of the training exercise, was nonetheless angry. “How disappointing that the CEO of St. Paul [Coleman] would [allow] our city and its people to be used as a late-night military playground,” he wrote.