Lack of execution, not preparedness, was to blame for Minneapolis’s civil unrest in 2020

This week, Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey and city leaders held a press conference to announce that the city is now prepared to properly respond to future crisis events, such as the civil unrest in 2020 following the death of George Floyd.

Mayor Frey described how for several years the city has been following up on 27 recommendations issued in 2022 as part of an after-action report following the unrest in 2020.

“The city of Minneapolis has rallied a broad administration around change, around learning our lessons and about making sure that the next time that some form of emergency strikes, we are prepared in full.”

Mayor Jacob Frey

During the press conference the Mayor and other leaders discussed how one of the significant aspects to the recent preparation was a four-day scenario based training session held in Maryland. The reporting indicates that the Mayor himself and other senior leaders participated in the training. I commend the Mayor and the other senior leaders for their commitment to preparing themselves and their city to better respond to crisis situations.

But make no mistake, Minneapolis didn’t crumble in 2020 due to a lack of planning or training on the part of public safety and emergency management leaders. It didn’t crumble because it was unfamiliar with the Incident Management System (ICS). It crumbled because political leaders didn’t step up and execute the planning and preparation that was already in place.

There’s an old military adage that says, “No plan survives first contact with the enemy.” Maybe Mike Tyson said it best when he said, “Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the mouth.” What these sayings get at is not so much the importance of planning, but the greater importance of being able to implement the plan and to react.

From the late 2000s through the 2010s I served as the point person for emergency management training and preparation with the Hennepin County Sheriff’s Office. In that capacity I personally participated in and witnessed the planning and preparation that went on continually by the Minneapolis Police, Fire, and Emergency Management Departments. 

We all trained together — a lot. We trained together, because we knew that when a big event hit, we would need to respond together. I can recall dozens of large-scale training exercises at large sporting venues, on our transit system, at our schools, and at our hospitals. We wrote detailed plans and tested those plans during scenario-based training.

In fact, in about 2011 Hennepin County and Minneapolis committed to participating in the exact same four-day scenario-based training put on in Emmitsburg, Maryland, that the Minneapolis leaders just went through recently. In 2011 we also sent about 70 public safety, fire, and emergency management leaders to attend this training which tested our plans and our ability to organize and respond to a significant terrorist attack in downtown Minneapolis. 

We were experienced in responding to and successfully managing large and complex real world crisis events as well — the I-35 bridge collapse, the Accent Signage active shooter event, the Super Bowl, the Major League Baseball All-Star Game, and multiple high-density protests which shut down roads, blocked access to buildings, and created chaos.

During each of these training and real-world events we used the Incident Management System (ICS) to establish command and control of the situation and to coordinate assets and resources between different departments, disciplines, and jurisdictions. 

In 2020 Hennepin County and Minneapolis were as prepared for a crisis as any jurisdiction in the nation. We weren’t prepared for progressive politics to undermine that preparation. Sadly, that is exactly what happened. The failure to properly execute the plans that were in place wasn’t the result of a failure of the plans or the training, but a lack of execution at the political and senior leadership levels.

A rush to judgement about what had occurred leading to Floyd’s death, and a hyper concern for the “optics” a large police or national guard response would present, all seemed to paralyze the political leadership from the local and state level leading to inaction at a time when firm and resolute action was needed the most.

So, while I applaud Minneapolis for continuing to prepare and train for a large-scale crisis response, I feel the need to set the record straight. This type of preparation isn’t anything new. There is a long history of fine leadership in and around Minneapolis in the areas of emergency management planning, training, and real-world response.

If anything was learned from the events of 2020, let’s hope the political leadership, locally and at the state level, better understand their roles and the importance of not paralyzing the very personnel, planning, and resources needed to properly address the next crisis. The fact that Mayor Frey and other senior leaders personally participated in the recent four-day scenario-based training is a great sign that progress has been made.