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After a tumultuous year, Moorhead police seek more training to handle civil unrest

Moorhead Officer Brandon Desautel, left, and Sgt. Robb Matheson stand next to gear purchased to use in response to large protests or demonstrations. Matheson will be among a group of police supervisors who will undergo in-depth training this year in how to deal with such events when they become violent. Kim Hyatt / The Forum1 / 2
The Moorhead Police Department now has a 40mm launcher to deploy tear gas and two PepperBall guns that shoot what look like paintballs, but contain a chemical irritant. These less-lethal weapons were recently purchased to help officers respond to a violent protest. Kim Hyatt / The Forum2 / 2

MOORHEAD — In 2018, the Moorhead Police Department is looking to build on its training to deal with protests and demonstrations, following a year that saw major unrest elsewhere in the country.

"When you have crowd-control issues or demonstrations, there's just some things you need to be up to speed on that keep people safe," said Moorhead Police Chief David Ebinger. "In this country, you should be able to express your views and go home in one piece."

Ebinger said it had been 10 years since his department had undergone Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) field force training and talk of a white supremacist rally coming to Fargo in October prompted him to prepare.

The rally never happened, but Ebinger said his department went ahead with training and upgrading tactical gear to respond to civil disorder or violence stemming from protests or counter-protests — similar to what happened in August in Charlottesville, Va., at the violent Unite the Right rally.

"A tragedy like that is a wake-up call for everybody," Ebinger said.

This year, Moorhead police supervisors will be sent to Alabama for additional, in-depth FEMA training. Sgt. Scott Kostohryz said he will be part of the group heading south.

"Unfortunately, nationwide we are seeing a trend in civil unrest in coping with a variety of social issues. While it hasn't hit Fargo-Moorhead, the potential is there," Kostohryz said.

The Moorhead City Council approved in September $41,000 in funding for gear and training from the Minnesota State Patrol, which uses the same tactics as FEMA. Ebinger reallocated $10,000 from his department's budget to fund the remainder of the training and equipment, which included protective gear and systems for deploying chemical irritants.

Along with full-body shields and soft body armor called turtle suits, the department now has a 40mm launcher to deploy tear gas and two PepperBall guns that shoot what look like paintballs, but contain a chemical irritant. These less-lethal weapons are used in a tiered response depending on the size and tone of the demonstration, Kostohryz said.

Moorhead police sponsored five days of training at the Fargodome in October to train 50 officers from Ebinger's department as well as officers from the West Fargo Police Department, the Cass and Clay sheriff's offices, and other agencies. More than 200 officers in total attended the training.

The training now allows Moorhead to work in unison with other departments in the region, such as the Fargo Police Department, that have received similar training and equipment.

Fargo Police Deputy Chief Joe Anderson said his department first had FEMA training back in 2003. He said the department has mandated that all officers complete certain FEMA courses.

Ebinger said the training and equipment for responding to civil unrest are like the fire extinguisher in the kitchen. "It's there when you need it, but you hope you never have to use it," he said.

Kim Hyatt

Kim Hyatt is a reporter with The Forum of Fargo-Moorhead and a 2014 graduate of the University of Minnesota Duluth. She started her newspaper career at the Owatonna People’s Press covering arts and education. In 2016, she received Minnesota Newspaper Association's Dave Pyle New Journalist Award and later that year she joined The Forum newsroom.

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