Low-flying helicopters alarm St. Paul residents
(MCT) With no warning for residents, military helicopters flew low Monday evening over St. Paul and Minneapolis in a federal training exercise, about which officials released almost no information.
The exercise -- reportedly involving U.S. Navy Seals with Army pilots, engaging in rappelling exercises in an urban setting -- began just before 8 p.m. and was scheduled to last until midnight.
The St. Paul police watch commander initially had no information on the exercise. He was later informed that it was a training exercise involving Homeland Security and local law enforcement.
St. Paul police officials said the City of Minneapolis was handling all media calls, because that's where the exercises originated. A written statement released within 15 minutes of the exercise said little, stating only that "there will be some night training going on, which includes military helicopters."
Minneapolis police spokesman John Elder, whose number was on the release, refused to answer additional questions about the exercise, repeating, over and over, "It's a training exercise."
"It's a training exercise. I've been practicing that line all week," he said, when asked if local police were involved in the exercise.
Many downtown residents said they were shocked and afraid at the sudden sight of military helicopters flying so near to their buildings.
Lynda Hanner, who lives on the 27th floor of City Walk Condominiums at 66 E. Ninth St., was surpised to see a helicopter flying just outside her window.
"At first I thought he was in distress -- in the process of crashing," Hanner said. "It was very frightening. They were playing dangerous games in my back yard, and I didn't appreciate it."
"Downtown St. Paul is not a training ground, there are about 7,000 of us who live here," added neighbor Karl Karlson.
St. Paul council member Dave Thune said he was furious about not being told of the exercise beforehand. He said he received close to 100 voice messages, texts and tweets from downtown residents also voicing concern.
"Apparently (local law enforcement) worked something out last March. Apparently they were supposed to go through the city of Minneapolis PIO to let people know, but that didn't work out so well," Thune said. "One day's notice is hardly any kind of excuse for doing this kind of thing anyway.
"It's incredibly unsafe," Thune added. "When you've got Blackhawk helicopters flying between buildings full of people in the middle of the night, it's just not safe. ... It's absolutely wrong for us as a civilian police department to be engaging in military exercises. It shouldn't happen here."
Some Minneapolis residents said they saw people rappelling from helicopters onto the Federal Reserve Bank.
Thune said he was informed the exercise involved Navy Seals, along with Army pilots, from units in the southern states.
A city official who asked not to be identified said there was an understanding that local law enforcement would receive military hardware in exchange for the city's cooperation in the exercise.
The exercise comes the same week as police actions in Ferguson, Mo., led some national politicians and pundits to questions how much military hardware was ending up in the hands of local police departments.
In the written statement, Minneapolis officials said the exercises would take place "this week," though Elder declined to say for how long.
The statement to media read: "Please call with locations or addresses you have questions about. These are Department of Defense exercises that should not be shared with the general public and security is of the utmost concern."
Tad Vezner can be reached at 651-228-5461 or follow him @SPnoir.
©2014 the Pioneer Press (St. Paul, Minn.). Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.