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Cops train to keep up with protesters’ changing ways

ECC students Elgpolice explorers act as protesters by linking themselves together with pvc pipe during ILEAS police response team training

ECC students and Elgin police explorers act as protesters by linking themselves together with pvc pipe during a ILEAS police response team training exercise Thursday at Elgin Community College. Tactics like this are part of the training used by ILEAS team members. September 27, 2012 | Michael Smart~Sun-Times Media

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Updated: November 1, 2012 6:35AM

ELGIN — War in the modern age often amounts to a point-counterpoint of advances in technology and tactics.

Similarly, the less bloody war that sometimes breaks out in the streets between protesters and riot-control cops is seeing some new tactics and new equipment on both sides.

And so, as 55 police from all over Kane and McHenry counties assembled for a training event called Operation Blue Line in the parking lot of Elgin Community College Thursday evening, they were practicing new tactics — including coordination with overhead helicopters that can see in the dark — to cope with some new tricks that protesters connected with the Occupy movement, the anti-globalization movement, the pro- and anti-gay marriage movement and so forth have come up with to frustrate officers such as them.

When a tense and possibly violent protesting or rioting situation arises, one group that local police departments can call on for help is the Kane-McHenry Mobile Field Force of an interdepartmental organization known as ILEAS (Illinois Law Enforcement Alarm System). It is commanded by Elgin’s own Police Sgt. Matt Udelhoven.

As the sun began to set Thursday, the unit’s 56 officers put aside the uniforms of the city and village police departments where they normally work and donned the black riot-control gear, helmets and face masks of ILEAS.

Two helicopters also were assigned to the drill by another inter-police-department organization financed by federal funds, known as Air One. The Elgin Police Department contributed its one-year-old, armored-car-like Ballistic Armored Tactical Transport, nicknamed “the BATT-mobile.” And five police departments sent trained K-9 German shepherd dogs with their handlers.

Meanwhile, gathering on the other side of the parking lot were 81 young people — age 18 to 30 — recruited from the ECC student body, the security force of the area’s Target stores, and the Fox Valley’s Law Enforcement Explorer troops to pose as protesters and troublemakers for the night.

NATO veterans

The unit’s last large-scale deployment came in May, when NATO leaders held a summit meeting in downtown Chicago. Just in case major tensions broke out, the Kane-McHenry cops were sent to stay in a University of Illinois-Chicago dorm and stand by near key transportation stations, business areas and intersections. As it turned out, the summit was mostly peaceful and they had little to do. What little conflict did develop was handled by Chicago’s own police department, which called dibs on protecting the most trouble-prone locations.

In past years, the Kane-McHenry unit also has helped protect the 2008 Republican National Convention in Minneapolis and a meeting of world leaders in Pittsburgh, among other assignments.

But as he prepared to tell the Men in Black and the Young Protesters what to do in four practice scenarios, Udelhoven said the public isn’t always aware that the group has been mobilized. Just last weekend, for instance, a Tea Party group rallied in a shopping center along Randall Road in South Elgin. South Elgin police worried that a lot of protesters could show up and cause trouble. “So eight of our officers were kept a few blocks away in case anything developed,” Udelhoven said. Nothing did.

He said the unit also was on standby during the week in case of a protest or terrorist attack against the Ryder Cup golf tournament in Medinah.

Next up, the unit will go to DeKalb for the Oct. 12-13 homecoming at Northern Illinois University. “Some NIU homecomings have gotten a little wild, with flash mobs and shootings and fights, so they want some extra manpower this year” who have special training in controlling crowds, he said.

Training like Operation Blue Line on Thursday night.

MIBs and YPs

In the first scenario, the 56 Men in Black (let’s call them the MIBs) squared off along one side of the asphalt field while the 81 Young Protesters (YPs) assembled on the other. Using a bullhorn called an LRAD, or Long Range Acoustic Device, the cops’ field commander announced that “this has been deemed an unlawful assembly. You have two minutes to disperse or you will be subject to arrest.”

The YPs just acted surly.

The MIB boss proclaimed that “your two minutes are up. You are all subject to arrest. If you don’t want to be subject to arrest, leave now.”

The MIB line advanced toward the YPs like a Roman army in battle, chanting, “Move back! Move back!” The protesters, in turn, chanted, “Hell no, we won’t go! Hell no, we won’t go!” Soon the cops were pushing the YPs aside and arresting the most troublesome, as the unit has practiced in the past.

The tube trick

But one thing was different this night, reflecting changing tactics being used by some protesters. Ten of the YPs sat down in a circle, holding hands with each other inside 3-foot-long PVC pipes.

“This is a tactic some protesters have been using on the West Coast when they block a street or a sidewalk,” Udelhoven said. “They hold hands, or even handcuff themselves together, inside PVC tubing or inside steel pipe to make it harder for us to move them aside and separate them.”

In this case, the YP arms inside the tubes were not handcuffed to each other, just holding hands. So after pushing aside the un-tubed YPs, and wrestling to the ground one especially aggressive protester who suddenly produced a knife, the Men in Black took on two of the tubing holders at a time, picking them up and pulling in opposite directions to get their arms out of the tubing. If they also had been handcuffed, the MIBs would have had to use tools to cut the tubing or pipe first.

Udelhoven said some protesters also have developed a tactic called “the tar baby,” in which a concoction of tar and other substances is cemented over handcuffs holding a ring of protesters together. “They know that if they can’t move, we don’t dare use gas.”

But the MIBs also have some new tricks they tried out this tonight. “One of the main things we want to accomplish is to test our radio interoperability,” the commander said. “To make sure we on the ground can communicate with helicopters overhead and with SWAT (the Elgin Special Weapons and Tactics team) in the BATT and with medics.”

That was going perfectly, he said. The copters circled overhead, watching what was going on and keeping in touch with the leaders on the ground.

The helicopters’ job is intelligence, Udelhoven explained. “They can see farther than we can at ground level. They can warn us, ‘There’s a mob coming right at you, two blocks to the east of you on Elm Street.’”

In the next scenario, the sky was growing dark as one officer threw a smoke bomb. It was supposed to represent tear gas or Mace being thrown by one of the protesters. The MIBs quickly put on their gas masks and continued moving forward. Then some medical complications arose. One protester stabbed another with a plastic knife. Another collapsed from some illness.

For Act 3, the YPs divided into two rival groups — one holding a sign proclaiming “YES” (it doesn’t matter to what) and the other a sign screaming back “NO.”

“You actually have more of a problem with each other than you do with the cops,” Udelhoven counseled the YPs as they began. “It will be our job to keep you two groups apart.”

Seeing in the dark

For the final scenario, in pitch darkness, the MIBs put all their new technology to the test. As he huddled with the protesters like a football quarterback, Udelhoven recruited four kids to run away from the crowd, dash across nearby Spartan Drive and try to hide in the scrubby acreage that used to be Spartan Meadows Golf Course.

“Once you’re over there, the golf course is yours,” he told the four. “You can run, you can hide. But just don’t go too close to the houses.”

One of those fleeing even pretended to have shot someone with a plastic pistol, then took the gun into the golf course and threw it away.

The assignment for the crew aboard one helicopter was be to find those fugitives and the gun. “The copter has a search light, but we’re going to use only their FLIR, or Forward Looking Infrared sensor,” Udelhoven said.

Invisible to the naked eye, that FLIR can see differences in the heat waves being put off by objects below. The warm skin and clothes on the hiding protesters stand out from the background glow of the cooler grass and trees.

If all goes well, Udelhoven said, even a gun should show up on that infrared screen. The metal of a real gun should remain warm enough just from the heat of the holder’s hand or from the heat of having been fired to show up against the background. But to give the copter searchers a boost, since this was only a plastic gun and had not really been fired, the discarded gun was attached to a hand-warmer.

The fugitives ran off into the darkness as police stopped traffic along Spartan Drive. (it wouldn’t do for one of these Explorer teens to get killed for real by a passing car.) Almost invisible high overhead except for a flashing red light, the helicopter people fired up their FLIR sensor and the guys in the BATT-mobile drove over to the golf course.

Back in the parking lot, the YPs unleashed a volley of almost-empty water bottles at the MIBs. Udelhoven had warned that “I don’t want to see anybody throwing overhand. Just lob it gently. We don’t want to see anyone hurt.”

As the Battle of the Parking Lot was resolved in the MIBs’ favor, the men keeping in touch with the helicopter and the BATT-mobile via radio had good news to report. Three of the four fleeing YPs were caught, one of them while hiding up a tree. And “they even found the gun,” Udelhoven said.

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