The attorney for an ex-cop accused in an assault that led to the firing of five St. Paul police officers said he was never officially told of a department internal investigation that may have affected his client’s case.
St. Paul attorney Jack Rice is representing Tou Cha, who is charged with beating another man last summer outside an East Side bar while the five police officers stood by without intervening. He said in an interview that he did not officially know the St. Paul Police Department was conducting an internal investigation into the officers’ conduct until Chief Todd Axtell announced their firing Thursday. Rice contends that the Ramsey County Attorney’s Office should have told him a probe was happening as they were negotiating a plea deal for his client.
“They were negotiating the resolution of this case without actually disclosing all of the evidence that they have,” Rice said. “They knew they had an obligation to disclose it, and they chose not to.”
Rick Dusterhoft, criminal division director of the County Attorney’s Office, said they were not aware of the investigation until Axtell announced the firings, and that they have no role in responding to internal affairs complaints. He said that when they charged Cha in December 2018, they turned over all evidence they received, including video of the assault.
“Any assertion to the contrary is patently false,” he said. “Police officers being held accountable for how they responded to a case does not change the underlying facts of the case.”
Adding to a complex case
Rice’s accusations add another layer to an already complex case. Immediately after the department’s biggest firing in recent history, the union that represents the terminated officers has accused the police chief of violating state law by revealing what led to the firing. Meanwhile, an ex-cop, Cha, has returned to public view more than a decade after resigning from the force.
The Police Department has not named the five fired officers, but internal affairs documents identified them as Nicholas Grundei, Robert Luna, Christopher Rhoades, Nathan Smith and Jordan Wild.
Michael Quinn, a former Minneapolis police detective-turned-consultant, said officers have faced charges in similar cases. But Erica Schumacher of the County Attorney’s Office and City Attorney Lyndsey Olson both said Friday that their offices have not been presented with any cases for charging consideration.
Axtell said Thursday that the officers’ actions involved “significant policy violations” and confirmed there is video of the incident, although he declined to go into detail about what happened.
“Officers are expected to intervene when criminal acts occur in their presence,” he said. “Officers are expected to protect the vulnerable.”
The St. Paul Police Department manual says “the department protects the right of all persons within its jurisdiction to be free from criminal attack.”
“As most police work is necessarily performed without close supervision, the responsibility for the proper performance of an officer’s duty lies primarily with the officer,” the manual says. “An officer carries a responsibility for the safety of the community and fellow officers.”
Though the firings have rocked St. Paul police, Quinn said such cases are common.
“There are so many officers every year who lose their careers, like those five, because they don’t report what they see,” he said.
The Police Department has provided few details about the case that led to the firings, but Axtell said Thursday that the five officers failed to intervene in an assault. A source familiar with the case told the Star Tribune that the firings were related to the allegations against Cha.
Cha, 50, was a police officer for 11 years before he resigned from the Police Department in 2005 after pleading guilty to lending out his service pistol, which was then used to shoot up the home of a Hmong leader.
He now faces three felony assault charges stemming from the June 2018 incident in which he allegedly pepper-sprayed a man and then beat him over the head with a baton. The victim, now 25, who is identified in court documents as “SV,” was hospitalized with a concussion and “significant lacerations” on his head requiring 24 staples, according to charges.
According to a criminal complaint filed late last year, officers were already on the scene after responding to and dispersing a fight at Checkerbar Food and Liquor on the 900 block of Arcade Street.
A police report obtained through a public records request shows the five fired officers were the first of 11 to respond to the scene shortly after 10 p.m. on June 17, 2018.
The city has received complaints about the bar, and neighbors interviewed Friday described frequent late-night fights.
Police Department records show officers visited the bar dozens of times before and after the night in question — while working off-duty, on proactive visits or to respond to calls ranging from disorderly conduct to assault.
The case continues
The St. Paul Police Federation said it plans to challenge the officers’ firings, and federation President Paul Kuntz accused Axtell at a news conference Friday of violating state law by discussing details of the case.
“These officers now have been deprived of unbiased and genuine due process because of his statements,” Kuntz said. “They have been painted in a false and unfair light due to his actions.”
Axtell hit back in a statement Friday, saying the federation had made “untrue allegations.”
Federation attorney Chris Wachtler said in an interview Friday that he expected the union to file a grievance in the coming week calling for the officers to be reinstated.
Meanwhile, Cha’s case continues, with his next court appearance scheduled for July. Court documents show the county’s witness list includes the five fired officers.
Rice said he hasn’t had a chance to speak with the officers about what they saw the night of June 17.
“Does anybody know what happened?” he said. “I don’t know.”
Staff writer Randy Furst contributed to this report.
Emma Nelson • 612-673-4509