BEMIDJI-- Local law enforcement leaders recently responded to community questions regarding actions of last weekend and plans for the next. Clarification was also received from Waste Management regarding accelerants being placed in dumpsters in downtown Bemidji on May 30.

Sheriff answers questions after county board meeting

Beltrami County Sheriff Ernie Beitel addressed constituents who appeared to be upset after they were unable to ask him questions during the County Board meeting Tuesday night.

Outside of the County Administration Building, a circle gathered around Beitel, who attempted to offer transparency regarding the events of last weekend.

Beitel reiterated his earlier statements, and clarified his written press release to the small crowd. Many had questions surrounding the citizens who were reportedly conducting city patrols.

Regarding the Off Grid Armory citizen patrol situation, Beitel said an investigation is underway.

“First of all, when we found out they were in the city, they were there without our knowledge, it was past the curfew, and they did ask, ‘how can I help?’ and I told them to leave the city limits,” he said.

They were not cited for being in violation of the curfew, Beitel added.

“An investigation is taking place to see whether there were any crimes committed and that event happening after all the dust settled of this thing,” he explained.

According to Beitel, an independent investigation into the action of these citizens is being conducted by the Brainerd Police Department.

“We didn’t use any vigilantes, we didn’t ask for anything,” Beitel said.

A member of the crowd cut him off to define the word vigilante -- “a member of a self-appointed group of citizens who undertake law enforcement in their community without legal authority,” she read off of her cellphone.

She argued that the word vigilantes would fit in the situation Beitel was describing.

“Now is there a statute that we could prosecute Sam (Smith) for being a vigilante? That is my question,” she asked. Smith is the owner of Off Grid Armory located near Itasca State Park.

Credible threats

Many times throughout the discussion, Beitel was cut-off and interrupted in his attempts to provide answers. “Please, please let me finish, do you want to hear an answer or not?” he said at one point.

Some organizers from last weekend’s demonstration were in attendance and asked why if there were credible threats made, they weren’t made aware of them.

“Why wasn’t that released to the organizers of the event?” a man asked.

“They did know,” Beitel replied.

“I am actually the lead organizer of the event and I was not informed,” the man said. “If we were to have received that information we would not have marched to the police station, we would have left and gotten more security for our event.”

Beitel said he would not have wanted the organizers to have obtained more security as “we were the security,” he said.

“Your demonstration was already happening when we found the evidence and we were told there was evidence,” he said. “That’s why law enforcement took the action they did to make our town safe.”

“I don’t have any control of the mayor, what she says or what she does,” Beitel added.

He explained that their system of communication was overloaded last weekend, and regrets this, saying “The people in charge didn’t hear about it until after the fact.”

Commissioner Tim Sumner, who stood among the crowd, said he liked having an open discussion with law enforcement and asked the sheriff if the conversation could continue via phone.

“Is there a place or a number where individuals can reach you to ask some questions? I think there’s a good dialogue going on and I think it needs to continue,” Sumner said.

Beitel said that his number is on their Facebook page, and he also gave it out to those involved in the discussion. Anyone who wishes to contact Sheriff Beitel can reach him at (218) 333-4136.

Mastin answers community questions

Bemidji Police Chief Mike Mastin addressed local business owners during a Business Round Table meeting held via Zoom on Thursday.

Mastin answered questions about the dumpsters found in the downtown area, what can be done to protect property, how business owners should prepare and how the Bemidji Police Department handles threats.

He briefly recounted the events of last week.

“We react based on information, and last week it really evolved,” he said. “When I left here on Friday night, there were no concerns.”

“It rapidly grew Saturday morning, to the point that we did put out a mutual aid request and asked for extra officers,” Mastin said.

Mastin said the mutual aid response was smaller than it might have been in other situations, because all hands are on deck in Minneapolis.

“It was really spread thin,” he said. “There was a coordinated effort by people to cause chaos across northern Minnesota last week.”

Dumpster questions

Business owners pressed Mastin for more information regarding the dumpsters filled with flammable materials.

He said he could not answer the majority of their questions -- where were they found, who found them, how many were there -- but he did tell them the concern was legitimate.

“It is part of an investigation and I can’t talk about that,” he said.

Mastin said Waste Management was called in to clear out the dumpsters, and that he spoke directly with a Waste Management employee who told him they smelled gas in a dumpster.

Some business owners raised concerns about the legitimacy of the dumpster complaints, which Mastin did not entertain.

“Just the idea that this is a conspiracy that this didn’t happen -- and I’ll be blunt -- pisses me off,” he said. “If I can’t believe a Waste Management employee, we’re in a really bad place.”

He said he did not personally search the dumpster due to time constraints, but that he trusts the descriptions he was given. “Dumpsters are a target during demonstrations, they absolutely are,” he added.

Waste Management response

Waste Management manager of government affairs, Julie Ketchum, said the dumpsters were investigated due to a report from the City of Bemidji.

Ketchum said six dumpsters with accelerants were found, all around the downtown area.

The dumpsters were filled with flammable materials and seemed to include makeshift wicks made from socks soaked in gasoline.

They “likely would’ve caused significant damage,” if the materials were to catch fire, she said. “We were directed by (Beltrami) County to take the materials to a site that they had approved.”

She and Mastin both said as a precautionary measure, the dumpsters would be emptied ahead of this weekend.

"There is a plan to clean out the dumpsters Saturday morning, so that there’s no material there to burn,” she said. “Our focus will remain on the downtown area.”

Looking ahead

Mastin said he is in full support of protesters being able to exercise their First Amendment rights to peacefully assemble.

“I’m a staunch believer in the First Amendment,” he said. “You should be able to demonstrate, you should be able to air your grievances, that’s our Constitution.”

Mastin addressed questions regarding a preparedness plan for the upcoming weekend, as another demonstration is scheduled for Saturday.

“The host group for Saturday's event, I personally don’t have any concerns for them,” he said. “I think they are going to have a good event, I think they are going to stay where they say they’re going to stay -- in the park.”

“I’m just afraid a bit about instigators that want to interject themselves that aren’t really part of this group,” he added.

Mastin recommended that business owners take steps to protect their property regardless. He suggested boarding up windows and removing tools that could be used to destroy property, such as bricks or flower pots.

"I think we should be planning for something bigger," he said. "Everyone should take steps to protect their property."

Mastin said that this is why the Law Enforcement Center was boarded up, as a precautionary measure, because the city cannot afford to lose essential functions like the 911 dispatch center.

He reminded business owners that Minnesota is not a ‘Stand Your Ground’ state, and therefore they cannot use deadly force to protect their property.

After addressing citizens’ concerns, both Beitel and Mastin said they hoped to continue an open dialogue with the public.