The St. Paul police union president blasted Chief Todd Axtell on Friday for revealing details about a case that led to the firing of five officers this week, saying the chief had violated state law.
At a news conference at the offices of the St. Paul Police Federation, Paul Kuntz, federation president, said “the facts of these cases are far, far different” from what Axtell described.
“The chief should know better,” Kuntz said. “He has given an incomplete and false narrative, forcing the media to fill in the blanks.”
Axtell announced the firing of the five officers Thursday, but did not name them or give details of the related case, other than to say they failed to intervene in an assault last year and that their actions 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.
A source familiar with the case told the Star Tribune that the altercation resulted in felony charges against ex-St. Paul officer Tou Cha, who is accused of beating another man with a baton at an East Side bar he owns last summer.
Federation attorney Chris Wachtler said in an interview that he expected the union to file a grievance next week. Kuntz also said the administration confirmed the names of officers involved to the news media “in violation of state law.” He did not say whether the union would pursue litigation and did not take questions from reporters.
In a statement Friday afternoon, Axtell called Kuntz’s statements “untrue allegations.”
“We will not let this distract us from continuing to do our jobs with integrity, purpose and a commitment to the community and our officers,” Axtell said. “I look forward to hearing the Federation’s position on this matter once they have taken the initiative to request and review the investigative files.”
Wild was one of two officers who fatally shot a 28-year-old man after a 2017 domestic dispute. He was not charged.
Investigation still open
Axtell repeatedly said Thursday that state law prevented him from providing details of what led up to the firings but said he learned about the situation last summer.
An investigation by the police department’s Internal Affairs unit began after the city’s human rights department received an online complaint of officer misconduct. It remains open, according to department spokesman Steve Linders.
According to a criminal complaint filed late last year in Ramsey County District Court, officers initially responded to and dispersed a fight on June 17, 2018, at Checkerbar Food & Liquor, a bar that Cha owns in the 900 block of Arcade Street, and the officers were still there when another fight began.
The five fired officers were the first of 11 to arrive at the scene about 10 p.m. on June 17, according to a report obtained through a public records request.
Linders said officers responded to a “relatively large” disturbance, and the number of officers involved reflected the number of people on hand.
The report lists two suspects, though only Cha was arrested and charged, Linders said. The criminal complaint says a man dressed in all white struck the victim with his fists before Cha began to beat him.
Also named in the report are the now 25-year-old victim and a woman listed as his “parent/guardian.” Neither could be reached for comment.
Cha, 50, faces three felony assault charges. The victim, who is identified in court documents as “SV,” was hospitalized with a concussion and “significant lacerations” on his head requiring 24 staples, according to the criminal complaint.
Cha was a St. Paul police officer for 11 years.
He 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.
A troubled bar
St. Paul police visited the location dozens of times before the night in question.
Records show officers visited the restaurant and bar nearly 100 times — while working off-duty, on proactive visits or to respond to calls ranging from disorderly conduct to assault — between Jan. 1, 2017 and Jan. 1, 2019, including several times in the days before and after the event that led to the five officers’ firing.
Neighbors say the bar is an ongoing problem.
The city’s Department of Safety and Inspections has received complaints about the business from residents fed up with drunk patrons pouring onto the street at closing time, and neighbors interviewed by the Star Tribune on Friday described late-night fights outside the bar.
“Every time I come here, I see something going on,” said Darien Mellette, 18, who visits her mother at her apartment nearby.
Jason Brown, 51, has a first-floor apartment close by and said he plans to move, partly because of the bar. He said one of his apartment windows and a window at the apartment next door were both broken by people leaving the bar.
“There have been too many fights,” he said.
An employee at the bar said Friday that Cha, the owner, was not there and was also not talking to reporters.
Jack Rice, the St. Paul attorney representing Cha, declined to comment on the allegations against his client.
Staff writer James Walsh contributed to this report.