How a Christian Nonprofit Helped a Controversial Minnesota Mining Company Buy Gear for Local Police
Ely is one of a handful of small towns in lake-studded northeastern Minnesota where mining or oil pipeline proposals have divided communities. While other extractive industry projects have sparked anti-pipeline protests nearby, the effort to stop a proposed copper-nickel mine near Ely is provoking few if any police confrontations. But it is no less divisive.
Twin Metals, a subsidiary of the Chilean mining company Antofagasta, is pushing to mine the edge of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, one of Minnesota’s most popular attractions for outdoorspeople, for which Ely serves as a major entry point. The mine’s ore processing facility would be near the shores of Birch Lake and the South Kawishiwi River, the waters of which flow into the wilderness area. The sulfuric acid released from its processes could leach into the water, harming aquatic life. Canoers and environmentalists are concerned.
In an effort to prove itself a worthy neighbor, Twin Metals is reaching deep into its pockets. In addition to donating to local governments directly, the mining company recently passed thousands of dollars’ worth of gear to the Ely police through a little-known Christian nonprofit called Shield616, whose mission centers on protecting officers against high-powered rifles.
On February 19, seven Ely police officers stood behind a long table at the Ely City Council hall. On the table were seven sets of body armor, ballistic helmets, and first-aid kits. The officers and community members in the audience bowed their heads in prayer over the gear — an element of Shield616’s standard gear presentations. “Our thanks to Twin Metals Minnesota for your generous donation to equip them with Shield616 gear!” read a Shield616 Facebook post later that day. An accompanying photo depicts Twin Metals CEO Kelly Osborne posing with the officers.
Twin Metals’ donation is an example of a quiet alliance between police and extractive industries in communities across the U.S. With protests breaking out, local governments — leveraging their police forces — are steeling themselves to fight back, leading to cycles of recriminations. In Duluth, Minnesota, for example, the police department recently purchased $84,000 worth of riot gear; that move itself sparked a protest. Shield616 helps local governments defray the costs of heavy-duty police gear — with extractive industries that work in their areas sometimes footing the bill.
Donations to Local Police
From Nebraska to Washington state to North Dakota and Minnesota, mining companies and fossil fuel transporters have donated vehicles, gear, and operations funding meant to fortify community goodwill as public officials respond to local opposition. The pattern is particularly evident in Midwestern states, where controversial oil pipeline companies are preparing for construction and public officials are developing contingency plans to manage potentially astronomical policing costs.
To Radley Balko, author of “Rise of the Warrior Cop: The Militarization of America’s Police Forces,” the ethical questions raised by the Twin Metals donation are more worrisome than the gear itself. “It all seems to be defensive gear,” he said of Shield616’s donations, noting that items like batons and tear gas launchers weren’t in the packages. “It’s hard to object to underfunded police departments getting stuff that makes individual officers safer.”
However, the donations still raise questions about conflicts of interest. “If police are called out to a protest against the company and the company has bought them this gear, where do their loyalties lie?” Balko said. “You have to ask whether the gift impacts the policies.”
In an email, Twin Metals spokesperson David Ulrich noted that the company has made more than $400,000 worth of donations in Minnesota, including $20,000 to United Way, along with funds for emergency medical technicians, school field trips, scouting, and sports clubs.
“Our donation to the Ely Police Department was not our first and is part of our ongoing engagement in the Ely community,” Ulrich said. “This particular donation was at the department’s request in light of the many security-related incidents at schools nationwide.”
Ely Police Chief John Lahtonen, who dismissed concerns about the Shield616 gear being repurposed for crowd control, defended the links to Twin Metals. “Let’s be clear here,” said Lahtonen, “that Twin Metals has been here for a number of years, and they’ve been good to the communities.”
Some locals, however, see more than goodwill at work.
“It’s nice that Twin Metals is donating to the community, but that’s their marketing strategy,” said Jason Zabokrtsky, owner and operator of Ely Outfitting Company, who opposes the mine. “It’s a way to try and convince people to support a project that is bad for Ely.”
Across the Midwest and in other rural areas, environmental activists are seeing deals like the one in Ely. Jane Kleeb, the founder of Bold Alliance, a network of groups fighting fossil fuel projects in rural areas, said she’s seen something similar play out in Nebraska, where the energy company TransCanada is seeking to build the controversial Keystone XL tar sands pipeline. “TransCanada for the last decade has gone community to community and has purchased equipment,” she said. She’s seen communities accept fire trucks, police ATVs, and playground equipment.
The most high-profile example was Energy Transfer’s $15 million donation to the North Dakota Department of Emergency Services in the wake of the Dakota Access pipeline protests, which drew thousands of protesters to the edge of the Standing Rock Reservation. Law enforcement’s heavy-handed response to the protests had come at a huge expense to the state and local governments. (Energy Transfer also traveled across Iowa, which also saw anti-Dakota Access pipeline protests, handing out a total of around $360,000 in donations to emergency management.) At the height of the Standing Rock protests, local police departments borrowed vehicles and other equipment from the Energy Transfer’s security force, which was led by the mercenary firm TigerSwan.
Looking to what happened in North Dakota, South Dakota’s governor recently signed a law that legally requires oil pipeline companies to fund law enforcement, should there be anti-pipeline protests. Passed in anticipation of demonstrations against the Keystone XL oil pipeline, the law says that the state should bill the pipeline up to $20 million for policing costs.
Some communities have rejected the donations. “There have been some police departments that have said no,” Kleeb said, citing Holt County, Nebraska, which she said refused TransCanada’s offers because of conflict of interest concerns. But many local governments dismiss those concerns and take the gifts. Smaller donations, like the Twin Metals gift to Ely police, are more common.
“It leaves citizens wondering who they’re going to protect,” said Kleeb. “If there’s a need for lifesaving equipment, that should be brought to the attention of local, state, and federal governments to make sure that our first responders are properly equipped to deal with emergencies. We should not be turning to corporations to equip them and essentially buy their loyalty.”
Taking Up the Shield of Faith
To Jake Skifstad, a former police officer and the head of Shield616, Twin Metals is just another concerned community member. “The Twin Metals mine, like all of our other donors, made an amazing contribution to ensure that our law enforcement officers will be safe and will be able to go home at the end of their shift,” Skifstad told The Intercept in an emailed response to questions. “We have individuals, businesses, foundations, churches, sports teams and even schools wanting to make potentially lifesaving contributions.”
The donated kits, worth $1,500 each, come with bulletproof vests, helmets, and first-aid equipment. Each officer that obtains gear is also matched with a sponsor from the local police department’s community. The sponsor receives a magnet with the name of their officer and the Bible quote from which the organization’s name is derived, Ephesians 6:16: “Take up the shield of faith with which you can extinguish all the flaming arrows of the evil one.” Sponsors are encouraged to pray for their officer every day.
The Colorado Springs, Colorado-based organization is unabashedly Christian. The promo video featured on their “about” page includes testimony from Rajeev Shaw of Focus on the Family, a Colorado Springs-based conservative Christian organization that has been a key voice in opposing reproductive and LGBTQ rights.
Skifstad, who is from Minnesota, has said that the idea to form the organization came in the wake of his involvement responding to two active-shooter situations as an officer with the Colorado Springs Police Department. One was a 2007 shooting at New Life Church, in Colorado Springs, where a 24-year-old man killed two people in the parking lot. The other was at a Colorado Springs Planned Parenthood in 2015, where an abortion opponent murdered three people, including a police officer. Although it has donated gear to departments in 19 states, according to Skifstad, Shield616 is most active in Colorado — where the entire Colorado Springs police force has been outfitted with the gear — Texas, and Minnesota.
“The equipment we provide to law enforcement is not designed or intended to respond to peaceful, lawful protests,” Skifstad said. “The armor provided is designed to protect officers against rifle threats and for active-shooter situations.”
Small Towns Gear Up
As armored personnel carriers designed for combat confronted pipeline protesters at Standing Rock, Shield616 made its first Minnesota donation during a ceremony held at Chisolm Baptist Church. Most of the organization’s work in the state has centered in the Northeast, the area known as the Iron Range. Police departments in small towns, including Hibbing, Nashwauk, and Keewatin have all accepted equipment. Shield616 also donated gear to the police department in Babbitt, located near another highly controversial planned copper-nickel mine called PolyMet.
The same month as the Chisolm gift, Shield616 donated 24 vests to police officers in Bemidji, near where the controversial Enbridge Line 3 pipeline passes. The group gave seven vests to the Carlton County Sheriff’s Department in July 2017, where officers have since been active in surveilling pipeline protesters. And, in February 2018, the Fond du Lac Police Department — whose jurisdiction is near where Line 3 passes through a reservation — received 20 vests.
Minnesota opponents of Line 3 promise another Standing Rock should construction begin on the pipeline. In North Dakota, police departments across the state were called on to respond to the anti-Dakota Access pipeline protests.
Ty Techar, chief of the Gilbert, Minnesota, Police Department, which accepted two sets of Shield616 gear in June 2018, said that if his department was called to respond to Line 3 protests, he would send officers. “Do I have the equipment? I do not. We’ll just go with what we have,” Techar said. Gilbert’s population is around 1,700, and the town doesn’t see many riots or large protests.
Techar noted that if demonstrators were throwing things, the gear provided by Shield616 could be useful. “If it’s available and it can be used in another situation, I’ll use it if I have to. We call it an opportunity type of equipment,” he said. “If there’s a chance I’m going to get injured, I’m going to grab what I can get my hands on.”
The gear, though, he said, isn’t ideal for riots. The vest is heavy, and the helmet lacks a face shield. “I wouldn’t want to wear these things for longer than a half-hour, hour and a half,” he said.
Some of the police chiefs interviewed by The Intercept said they can’t think of an incident in the recent past when the gear would have been essential, but noted that many northern Minnesotans own high-powered rifles. “We haven’t thankfully had any incidents where there was issues with the schools, but that’s what they’re there for,” said Hibbing Police Sgt. Jeff Ronchetti. “We have used them for responding to calls with gunfire.”
Although many of Shield616’s donors are churches or local businesses, Twin Metals isn’t the only mining company to donate gear. The gear given to the Gilbert police was provided via a donation from Cleveland Cliffs, the company behind the expanding Thunderbird taconite mine. Cleveland Cliffs also provided 10 vests to nearby Eveleth, Minnesota.
Police Chief Tim Koivunen of Eveleth said Cleveland Cliffs has long been a generous donor to the department, providing donations for the K-9 unit and National Night Out, an event that promotes community-police relationships. “Any time I contact them, whether it’s for the DARE program and various programs, they are right there,” he said.
Chris Whitney, chief of the Keewatin, Minnesota, police, which accepted six sets of gear from Shield616, is more cautious about gifts. “Typically we don’t take a lot of donations,” he said. “People can look at it funny if you take money or donations from big businesses. It looks like you’re currying favors.” Whitney compared it to the types of suspicions that can be raised when well-to-do townspeople give money to police departments: “People can take it the wrong way. Like, ‘Oh this wealthier citizen gave you a big donation, so you’re going to patrol around their house or look the other way if they drink and drive.’”
In Duluth, $30,000 Worth of Gear
On April 26, 2018, Shield616 held one of the its gear giveaway ceremonies, this time for police in Duluth. Six police officers stood behind a table with 22 vests and helmets placed on top – approximately $30,000 worth of gear. The nonprofit had expected there to be enough officers to match up with the gear, but many of the 16 others had been called to respond to a massive explosion that morning at the Husky oil refinery in neighboring Superior, Wisconsin.
After the attendees prayed over the gear, a local bakery served “thin blue line” donuts, adorned with chocolate icing punctuated by a royal blue stripe, a reference to the so-called Blue Lives Matter movement, which sprung up to counter Black Lives Matter criticisms of police.
“If Shield616 hadn’t raised the money and bought these packages, we would purchase the gear on our own,” Officer Mike Jambor — whom Shield616 has tagged on Facebook as its liaison with the department — told a local NBC affiliate. The department declined to respond to The Intercept’s requests for comments.
Tara Houska, an anti-pipeline organizer with the Indigenous-led environmental organization Honor the Earth, testified against the $84,000 worth of riot gear that Duluth police purchased last year. “The only riot in Duluth’s history was actually a lynching,” she said in reference to the 1920 lynching of three black circus performers. “There’s just no need for that.”
Unlike many Shield616 gifts, some of the gear going to the Duluth police was from an anonymous donor, raising suspicion among activists that it is related to extractive industry work in the area. Enbridge’s Line 3 pipeline has its terminus in Superior, Wisconsin, not far from Duluth.
“If the concern is shooters or some unforeseen extreme violence in our towns, I understand — if that’s actually a real concern,” Houska said. She added, with skepticism, “There happens to be a controversial, unsupported-by-the-public extraction project, which could permanently damage our waters.”
Alleen Brown is New York-based reporter, focused on environmental justice issues. Prior to joining The Intercept, she worked as an education reporter in Minnesota. Her work has been published by The Nation, In These Times, YES! Magazine, and various Twin Cities publications.