ST. PAUL, Minn. -- Keeping opposing groups of demonstrators separated has become a delicate balancing act for the state troopers and other security officers who guard the Minnesota State Capitol.
Recent clashes between counter-protesters and people attending political rallies has caused some to question the State Patrol's policies on demonstrators.
"Legitimate, scheduled well in advance, permitted rallies were taking place in front of the Capitol only to be interrupted by other groups who came in and roughed them up a little bit, pushed them around," Sen. Warren Limmer, a Maple Grove Republican who heads the Senate Judiciary and Public Safety Committee, told reporters.
In March counter-protesters accosted people attending a pro-Trump rally inside the Capitol. Eventually eight of those counter-protesters were charged with crimes connected to the incident.
In June, hundreds of counter-protesters converged on the Capitol in response to an event dubbed "March Against Sharia" and State Patrol officers had to step in to break up fights and detain some demonstrators.
Sen. Limmer, at Tuesday's meeting of the State Capitol Security Commission, questioned why groups with permits don't have priority over those without them.
"That’s allowed as long as they’re not interfering with the freedom of speech of the first group? Why have a permit in the first place?"
Capt. Eric Roeske, who heads the State Patrol's Capitol Security detail, said the goal has always been to maintain free speech rights while at the same time ensuring safety and orderly legislative meetings. Troopers generally don't stop people without permits from demonstrating peacefully.
"We just try to do the best we can to try to keep the group that has a permit, that they can have their space and do their thing," Roeske explained. "And then if another group shows up we try to set up some sort of a boundary or expectations if we can develop some rapport with the group."
Sen. Scott Dibble, a Minneapolis Democrat, agreed that troopers shouldn't try to expel protesters without permits.
"I can’t imagine how we would even practically enforce a policy of not permitting people to come here to rally or protest, absent a permit, if they show up," Dibble remarked.
Lt. Gov. Tina Smith, the Democrat who chairs the Capitol Security Commission, said she supports the State Patrol's current line of action when it comes to counter-protesters.
"I'm really grateful for the work the State Patrol does in Capitol complex to keep people safe, and to make sure people can exercise those rights and also to make sure that the government functions," Lt. Gov. Tina Smith told reporters Tuesday.
Limmer said it may be time to explore a designated protest area, as a means of separating opposing groups and minimizing physical and verbal confrontations. He said he hadn't given much thought yet to exactly where it would be.
"Our number one goal is to make sure this is a safe environment, not only for people who work here but for those citizens who come here on legitimate reasons to come and work here."
He also said, given increasing incidents of protesters disrupting legislative meetings, it may be time to revive the unit of retired state troopers to provide added security at committee meetings.
That contingent of retired troopers was deactivated when the numbers of active, uniformed state troopers was increased in the State Capitol complex.
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