Five St. Paul police officers who stood by as an ex-cop assaulted a civilian last year were fired Thursday in what Chief Todd Axtell called an “ugly day in our department’s history.”
Axtell declined to go into specifics about the attack, but a source familiar with the case told the Star Tribune it involved former officer Tou Cha, who faces felony assault charges in Ramsey County for the accusation of beating another man with a baton at an East Side bar last summer.
At an afternoon news conference flanked by his commanders, Axtell said the fired officers responded to a scene last year and, while there, an individual was assaulted but the officers did not intervene. An officer was not involved in the assault, which was captured on video, Axtell said.
The chief said he learned about the event last summer. Internal affairs records identified the officers as Nicholas Grundei, Robert Luna, Christopher Rhoades, Nathan Smith and Jordan Wild. They will have the opportunity to appeal their firings.
“I have learned of a violation of trust, deceit and significant policy violation,” said a visibly emotional Axtell. “ … Our officers have the duty and obligation at the very least to adhere to our professional standards, and officers are expected to intervene when violent criminal acts occur in their presence. Officers are expected to protect the vulnerable. And officers are expected — I demand that officers tell the truth.”
The revelation comes almost exactly a year after the event, and two days after the Star Tribune made a request for public records related to Cha’s case. A search for a police report from June 17, 2018, produced only reports from June 20, when officers met with the alleged victim at police headquarters.
Reached by phone, Axtell would neither confirm nor deny that the officers’ firings were related to the Cha case.
“The law won’t allow me to say anything further about that,” he said.
Chris Wachtler, attorney for the St. Paul Police Federation, said the union will challenge the firings.
“We don’t believe the facts of the case warrant any termination of the five officers, and we will fully exercise our rights under the collective bargaining agreement,” he said.
Wachtler also said he believed that Axtell violated the Minnesota Data Practices Act by revealing details of the case during the news conference.
“I am not going to get into the facts of the case. I know the facts of the case, and I have seen the video and what happened there does not support termination,” he said.
Wachtler said the federation will file a grievance. “In all likelihood, it will happen [Friday] or next week,” he said. If the department does not rescind the terminations, the cases will go to arbitration, he said.
“My guess is it will go into next year,” he said.
Cha, a St. Paul police officer for 11 years, resigned in 2005 after pleading guilty to lending out his service pistol, which was then used to shoot up the home of a Hmong leader.
Now 50 years old, Cha was charged by summons late last year with three felony counts of assault.
According to a criminal complaint, police responded to the bar and restaurant Cha owns, Checkerboard Pizza, on June 17, 2018, after a fight broke out at a family gathering. Police dispersed the crowd and one of the responding squad cars parked across the street with its lights off, the complaint said.
Then another fight broke out and, as the squad approached the crowd, the video recording system in the squad car captured Cha as he swung a baton down on another man, identified as “SV,” who was “completely defenseless,” the complaint read.
SV later told police that Cha pepper-sprayed him while he was down on the sidewalk, then hit him with a baton, the complaint said. SV was taken to the hospital and treated for a concussion and “significant lacerations” on his head. SV’s mother told investigators she saw Cha strike her son on the head with a baton, the complaint said.
At the news conference, Axtell said the decision to fire the officers was made after an investigation by the department’s internal affairs unit, and after recommendations by the Police Civilian Internal Affairs Review Commission (PCIARC).
The review was completed this week, he said.
“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.”
The department is made up of about 630 sworn officers.
The all-civilian PCIARC reviews complaints of officer misconduct including allegations of excessive force, inappropriate use of firearms, discrimination, racial profiling and poor public relations. The group’s chair and vice-chair resigned June 4, citing a lack of support from city officials, including Mayor Melvin Carter.
In a statement, Carter praised Axtell’s leadership and the work of the review commission “to enforce strong ethical standards in our police department.”
“While the vast majority of our officers meet and exceed these standards every day, the trust we place in them demands accountability for actions that fall below our high expectations,” he said.
Liz Xiong, a spokeswoman for the mayor, said he was unavailable for comment on the involvement of a former officer in the alleged assault.
Thursday’s terminations mark the second occasion resulting in an officer’s firing since Axtell was appointed chief three years ago. In 2016, Brett Palkowitsch was fired for kicking an innocent bystander three times as a police dog bit and dragged him to the ground. An arbitrator ruled that Palkowitsch be rehired, but he was placed on paid administrative leave after he was indicted in January, accused of using excessive force in the same encounter.
Axtell said Thursday’s firings rocked him personally and professionally “because I care so much about this great city.”
“Today we are making a huge withdrawal from our bank of trust,” he said. “Our job now as a police department and my ongoing pledge to you, our community, is to move forward from this ugly day in our department’s history.”
Star Tribune news researcher John Wareham contributed to this report.
Emma Nelson • 612-673-4509 Randy Furst • 612-673-4224