By David Chanen, Randy Furst and Matt McKinney
MINNEAPOLIS — Minneapolis Police Chief Janee Harteau has fired two white police officers who scuffled with a group of black men, then used racial slurs while berating local police investigating last summer's incident in Green Bay, Wis., according to sources close to the Police Department.
The firings of officers Brian Thole and Shawn Powell, both military veterans who were on the department's SWAT team, will kick off an automatic appeals process that could last a year, according to a lawyer familiar with such cases. The officers have been on paid administrative leave since July.
At least one of the officers also disparaged Harteau as a lesbian in the June 29 incident, which was partly recorded on video and described in a 40-page Green Bay Police Department report. The officers, who were off-duty, were not charged with any crime in Green Bay, but the department there reported the incident to the Minneapolis department, prompting the internal affairs process that led to Tuesday's firing.
Ron Edwards, a longtime Minneapolis civil rights activist, applauded Harteau's decision. "She is sending a message that disrespect under her leadership will not be tolerated and I commend her for her courage," he said.
When it first came to light, the incident brought immediate condemnation from city, police and union leaders. The Star Tribune learned days later that at least three more Minneapolis officers had been cited for assault months before for a similar incident in Apple Valley.
The two cases ignited a round of public recriminations of the department and reawakened simmering complaints of racial intolerance by police officers. Prominent community activists held a news conference on the front steps of City Hall to call for a U.S. Justice Department audit of the department.
Harteau said at the time that she would review the department's training and hiring practices. She also pledged to expand a citizens advisory council to rebuild trust with the community, inviting cultural and faith leaders to meet with the group that she had created soon after becoming chief one year ago.
The meetings, which Harteau said would ultimately produce a plan to improve community relations, have been held in private.
Harteau was not immediately available Tuesday to talk about her community plan.
Lengthy appeals process
In a news release, Harteau said she informed the officers of her decision Tuesday but could not release it publicly because of privacy laws. Two sources who spoke on the condition of anonymity confirmed to the Star Tribune that the two men were fired.
Because the two officers are both veterans and union members, they have two appeals options.
They can challenge their dismissal through the traditional union procedures, provided under the union contract with the Minneapolis Police Federation. Union leaders Tuesday declined to discuss the reported firings.
Or, they can appeal under procedures created under the state's Veterans Preference Act.
They can use only one of the two procedures. They have three weeks to decide whether to file a grievance under the union contract, or 60 days to decide whether they wish to file under the Veterans Preference Act. Sources indicated Tuesday that the officers had not decided which route to take.
If they appeal under the union contract, an arbitrator will decide whether to uphold their termination or put them back to work.
If they use the Veterans Act, either a civil service panel or a panel of three people, one member selected by the veteran, one selected by the Police Department, who together pick a third person, will conduct a hearing and reach a decision by majority vote. There is a period of discovery before the hearing to conduct witness interviews and gather evidence. If a veteran disagrees with the panel's decision, he can appeal to state district court.
The process could take a year and the appealing officer would be paid until a decision is reached under the Veterans Act. In a union procedure, officers could be awarded back pay if the firing is overturned.
Just weeks before the Green Bay case, three off-duty Minneapolis police officers — William C. Woodis, Christopher J. Bennett and Andrew R. Allen — were wrapping up court proceedings related to an alleged assault during a fight on Nov. 19, 2012, outside an Apple Valley bar. The white officers were among a group of white men who followed a group of black men into the parking lot of Bogart's Place, knocking one of them down and beating him, according to the Apple Valley police report. The black men said the Minneapolis officers used racial slurs.
Woods and Bennett plead guilty to disorderly conduct; charges against Allen were dismissed. The three officers are still the subjects of an Internal Affairs investigation.
The question of how Minneapolis disciplines police officers has been under renewed scrutiny after the Apple Valley and Green Bay incidents. According to a Star Tribune analysis, the city of Minneapolis made $14 million in payouts for alleged police misconduct between 2006 and 2012, but the Police Department rarely concluded that the officers involved did anything wrong.
Citing that record, community activist Mel Reeves said he considered Tuesday's decision a first step.
"It's a step in the right direction, but we will know they are really serious when they start punishing cops who are guilty of brutalizing people," he said.
McClatchy-Tribune News Service
Copyright 2013 the Star Tribune