When St. Paul Police Chief Todd Axtell recently announced the firing of five officers, he described the incident that led to his decision as “taking a huge withdrawal from our bank of trust.” The idea is that by holding cops accountable for misconduct, the community’s faith can be restored in the ciry’s Police Department.
While it’s encouraging that the chief wants to hold his officers to high standards, in this case several questions need answers to help rebuild public confidence. Additional information should be disclosed about the incident and about investigations of it during the past year.
During a news conference on June 14, a visibly emotional Axtell announced the terminations without naming the officers or giving many details about their transgressions. He said only that the officers stood by and did nothing while an assault was occurring about a year ago. According to the chief, state law prevents him from saying any more in personnel cases.
Failure to step in and break up an altercation, Axtell said, involved “a violation of trust, deceit and significant policy violation.” Internal affairs records identified the five fired officers as Nicholas Grundei, Robert Luna, Christopher Rhoades, Nathan Smith and Jordan Wild.
Other sources told Star Tribune news reporters that the incident led to felony assault charges against ex-St. Paul officer Tou Cha. Last June, police were called to a bar on the East Side that is owned by Cha. In complaints against the department, the alleged victim said the former officer beat him with a baton in the presence of officers.
That limited information raises more questions. If the complaints were filed close to the time of the alleged assault in June 2018, why did it take a full year for Axtell to take action? According to news stories, no report was filed by officers that responded to the call. Why not?
The decision to fire the officers, Axtell said at his news conference, was made after the department’s internal affairs unit completed its investigation. The Police Civilian Internal Affairs Review Commission (PCIARC) had also made recommendations in the case. The internal review was completed the same week the firings were announced, Axtell said.
The timing of the terminations needs a full explanation; why did they occur shortly after the media pressed for additional information?
The St. Paul police union president and attorney say the chief has the facts of the situation all wrong. Furthermore, they contend he violated state law by revealing what he did in the termination announcement. They say Axtell said too much.
But in our view, the chief said too little to fully explain his action.
“When officers fail to live up to these standards it affects everyone who wears a badge and has earned the privilege and the honor to wear this uniform, and that’s why I’ve taken this action,” Axtell said. “This community deserves to know that its St. Paul police officers will always do the right thing and will always tell the truth.”
Part of truth-telling is making squad and body camera video evidence available to the public. Here again, a department spokesperson says such a release is blocked until the entire disciplinary process if finished. But the department should seek clearance to release the footage to allow the community to make its own judgments about this complicated case.