FARGO – The sight of police with military-style rifles and camouflage fatigues trying to control crowds of angry protesters in Ferguson, Mo., raises the question: How would police in the Fargo-Moorhead area handle a riot?

Local police officials say they have a plan that centers around what they call a mobile field force – scores of officers from various agencies trained in how to quash civil unrest.

Since the force was created more than a decade ago, there’s been no need for it, and several years have passed since the last training exercise, said Fargo Police Chief Keith Ternes. But if there ever was a riot, the officers would have helmets, body shields, batons and tear gas at their disposal.

In Ferguson, police have used similar gear to confront the public backlash after an officer fatally shot an unarmed black teen Aug. 12. In connection with the upheaval, some members of Congress have criticized a federal program that sends surplus military equipment, no longer needed in the global war on terror, to police departments. On Monday, President Barack Obama said it would be useful to review how that program and federal grants for homeland security are administered.

Ternes said he understands these concerns and believes there should be a strong distinction between the look of civilian police officers and military forces. But he said there’s a need for local police to have certain capabilities if certain crises arise.

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Ternes gave the example of the Red River Valley SWAT team’s Bearcat, a $256,000 armored vehicle purchased with a state grant in 2009. The vehicle has been used in emergency situations about 12 times, he said.

“If that thing never leaves the garage because we don’t have a need for it, then we’re being successful,” he said. “But, you know, when those dozen incidents have occurred, boy, that’s been a nice piece of equipment to have.”

Testicle Festival

Before the North Dakota State University football team won its national championship during the 2011 season, Fargo police planned for the possibility that celebrations might turn ugly. The partying turned out to be peaceful, but police officials say sporting events, concerts or large protests are the most likely scenarios that could lead to unrest in the metro area.

The last riot to hit Fargo was in June 2001 at Lindenwood Park during the Testicle Festival (read coverage from 2001 here), a three-day, 33-band rock concert. At least seven people were arrested during a confrontation with about 40 officers.

The riot erupted before the creation of the mobile field force, and officers found themselves without specific training and equipment to quell the situation.

“The best strategy we had at that time was to basically call for more cops,” Ternes said.

The mobile field force, which is separate from the SWAT team, grew out of that riot and another one that exploded in Moorhead’s Romkey Park after a fireworks show on July 4, 1998. A crowd there became unruly when officers tried to make an arrest in the neighborhood, which had a large Hispanic population.

When those officers called for backup, Moorhead police Lt. Tory Jacobson was the first officer to arrive. He recalls encountering a throng of about 200 people.

“The initial scene looked like maybe a rock concert where people were pushing toward the stage,” Jacobson said. “Very fast, it became very dangerous.”

Jacobson said his police dog, Cody, helped him clear a path through the bottle-throwing crowd, so the arresting officers could get to safety. In all, about 100 area officers were dispatched to the disturbance, and 16 people were arrested.

Military surplus

Cass County Sheriff Paul Laney said he strongly disagrees with the notion that police departments are becoming militarized. With the exception of guns, the surplus items police receive are largely defensive, such as armored vehicles that protect officers from gunfire, he said.

“I think it makes a whole lot more sense to get this surplus that’s already been paid for by the taxpayers and put it back to good use rather than have it shredded and destroyed,” he said.

Many agencies in North Dakota have surplus M-16 and M-14 rifles in their possession. Laney’s department has 60 rifles; Fargo police have eight; and West Fargo police have six, according to records kept by the state’s surplus property division.

Some departments have acquired military vehicles, only paying the cost of shipping. The sheriff’s departments in Stutsman and Richland counties both have a Mine-Resistant Ambush Protected (MRAP) vehicle, each worth more than $650,000, records show.

A total of 1,549 weapons or other equipment – with an estimated value of about $3 million – has been distributed in North Dakota over the past decade. More than 8,500 items have gone to law enforcement agencies in Minnesota.

Cindy Gomez-Schempp, an activist critical of Fargo-Moorhead police, objects to the heavy arms that police carry, particularly the military-style rifles kept in squad cars.

“This is not Fallujah, this is Fargo. The fact that they even have this kind of stuff is sort of terrifying,” she said.

Gomez-Schempp acknowledges that Ferguson, a St. Louis suburb where the National Guard is now patrolling the streets, is not Fargo. But she says that when people here fear the police, officers cannot effectively fight crime.

Such fear is a factor police have to be mindful of when dealing with disorderly crowds, said Moorhead Police Chief David Ebinger. When officers don intimidating riot gear, their appearance alone can stir trouble.

“If you show up with that gear and you don’t have a riot, you’re inviting one,” he said. “The best weapon we have is our ability to communicate.”

Kevin Bonham of the Grand Forks Herald and MCT contributed to this report.