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Countywide unit deploys during protests: Sheriff’s Office, 8 police departments partner for mobile field force

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The moment the molotov cocktail landed about three feet from Washington County Sheriff's Office Sgt. Joel Legut on Interstate-94 back in 2016, he knew this was something one agency couldn't handle alone, especially not without the right equipment.

Legut, along with Cottage Grove Sgt. Mike Coffey and Woodbury Sgt. Scott Melander, got to work creating a countywide mobile field force or MFF unit after that incident, about a year and a half ago.

A mobile field force is a rapid-response unit that deploys during protests, riots, large-scale activities: anything where a large number of people may need management by police.

The local MFF is composed of the Washington County Sheriff's Office, along with the Cottage Grove, Woodbury, St. Paul Park, Oakdale, Oak Park Heights, Forest Lake and Stillwater police departments. About 55 officers from the eight agencies are in the unit.

The unit will deploy when the need arises for incidents in the county or around the metro area.

This Washington County MFF unit is the only known of its kind in the state and has been garnering attention. Outstate and out-of-state agencies have contacted Legut and Coffey for information on the unit and how they launched it.

"I think statewide, they're looking at Washington County," Sheriff Dan Starry said. "With many concepts we're usually on the leading edge."

'One unit, one cohesive team'

When started about 18 months ago, the unit had no money to speak of.

Legut and Coffey have been busy applying for grants. One such federal grant secured fire-resistant uniforms known as no-drip, no-melt equipment.

Legut said the importance of protective gear became evident to him when a molotov cocktail landed near him during protests following the Philando Castile shooting in 2016.

"You realize very quickly this is not the best stuff to wear in a situation like that," he said, gesturing to his Washington County Sheriff's Office-issued pants.

Their uniforms not only protect them in the field, Legut said, but it also give them an air of professionalism and connection.

"The no-drip, no-melt, it's actually the uniform they all look for," he said. "It's all blue, we're all identical. We're not wearing different uniforms; we're all one unit, we're one cohesive team."

Outside of their uniforms, funding comes piecemeal from the eight separate agencies.

"For the most part the cities have been pretty good with 'OK, we need one little thing over here,' and maybe one city will pay the cost of that," Coffey said. "We need something over here, one city will bear the cost of that."

Coffey also said they are working to create an official budget in the near future. The Sheriff's Office is considered the fiscal agent until that time.

Most training sessions are funded through individual agencies, much the same way any other officer training is done.

Coffey and Legut were two of the several officers who went to FEMA training at the Center for Domestic Preparedness in Anniston, Ala., before the group was fully formed.

The 55 officers in their unit have each attended several training sessions. Coffey and Legut have also trained around 300 officers in MFF practices.

There are several specialties among officers in the unit, including a chemical agent response team, paramedics, mobile booking and a team known as Cut, which specializes in removing people when they have chained or tied themselves to something.

Though SWAT can often be involved in protest responses in some ways, Coffey and Legut said the MFF is different from a SWAT team.

"Their purpose is to mostly deal with those intense situations, more on a smaller scale," Legut said. "Hostage rescues, if there is active shooter situations, they go in there, because they have the equipment and the skills and tactics to do that."

"With MFF, it's a different thing," he continued. "Large scale, protest or riots, it's not really a SWAT function, however the two teams do work together."

Climate

The reason Legut and Coffey decided now was the time to launch the mobile field force is because Minnesota has been taking on a more active role in national and local protests over the past few years.

The unit was first deployed last summer, assisting the Minnesota State Patrol when protesters took to Interstate 94 after Jeronimo Yanez was acquitted for the Philando Castile shooting.

They were deployed twice during those protests.

"What ... I think that people were realizing is an overwhelming majority of people are voicing their rights, which they have every right to, but it's that small minority that would take advantage of that and create chaos," Legut said. "And we did not have that resource really in our county, so I think that's what really opened up our eyes."

More importantly, Coffey said, is that no individual agency in Minnesota — including St. Paul or Minneapolis — can handle these major events on its own.

As they see the protest trend continue to climb, Coffey and Legut remain sensitive to the fact that not everyone agrees on law enforcement's role in public protests, or that they should be involved at all.

"This group is not to push people back from their rights to protest; that's not our goal. That's actually furthest from the goal. We really want to protect that right," Legut said. "But we also have to uphold the laws. So if it's done legally, great. Please, more power to you. But if it's not, we have to enforce those laws."

Starry said officers have been taught to remain neutral through de-escalation and other training courses.

"That's the whole point of this team is to make sure that they're trained and see both sides," he said. "We want to promote that law enforcement (role) of law and civil order, and provide peace and protection of property. ... The protection goes both ways."

Coffey said that even when officers disagree with protesters, they are still trained to be impartial.

"I have the utmost confidence that (the officers') beliefs will not come through while they're up there on that line," he said. "They will maintain that level of professionalism, they will maintain it neutrally and they will enforce the law equally."

The team has not been deployed since summer 2017, but remains active by completing more training and mock protests.

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