Two long-time Crystal police officers have been disciplined and placed indefinitely on paid home assignment in recent months, and both contend it stems from their asking why the department apparently didn't investigate a family's theft report involving the now-defunct Metro Gang Strike Force.
Officers Alan Watt, on the force for 17 years, and Rob Erkenbrack, a 27-year veteran, filed complaints with the city in mid-June alleging improper actions by Police Chief Stephanie Revering and others in the department. Watt and Erkenbrack said they believe that since last fall they have been disciplined, demoted and placed on leaves as retaliation for questioning the apparent lack of an investigation into a theft report filed by a Crystal family, the Ramirezes, after a 2008 Strike Force raid. The officers claim they were also targeted for other criticisms they have made.
Revering had no comment last week when asked about the theft report and why Watt and Erkenbrack were disciplined and put on leave.
"It is very convoluted, so I am not going to comment on it," said Revering, who was promoted to chief last fall. The officers' cause has been taken up by an activist group, Communities United Against Police Brutality, which has filed complaints with Crystal officials and the Minnesota Peace Officers Standards and Training Board (POST), said group president Michelle Gross. The group plans a rally Monday evening before the Crystal City Council meets; the council is expected to discuss the officers' situation in closed session.
"We support officers standing up and doing the right thing," Gross said. "Retaliation discourages officers from standing up and going against the 'blue wall' of silence."
The POST board asked St. Cloud police to investigate the allegation of illegal retaliation against the officers. St. Cloud Assistant Police Chief Sue Stawarski said the investigation should be done by mid-August.
2008 raid and family's report
The Ramirez family filed a theft report after their possessions were removed from their apartment in the wake of a July 2008 raid by the Metro Gang Strike Force.
A year ago, the family received about $26,000 in compensation as part of the settlement of class-action lawsuit against the Strike Force, which was disbanded in July 2009. In all, a special master and a judge awarded more than $850,000 to 110 people who said they were the victims of illegal searches, seizures or use of excessive force by the Strike Force.
Adrian Ramirez, 23, said in a recent interview that his family was never able to recover the clothes, furniture and cash left in their apartment, for which the police had the locks changed after the raid. His aunt, Martha Ramirez, 41, said she helped file a theft complaint with Crystal police after seeing family belongings carted away from the apartment a few days after the raid. Although Brooklyn Park officer Greg Burstad, a Strike Force member, told Adrian Ramirez at the time that police found cocaine in the apartment, Ramirez said he was jailed for a week but not charged with anything.
It was after the special master's awards and release of related documents last summer that the two Crystal police officers asked why the department apparently had not investigated the Ramirez theft report.
In his complaint to the city, Watt says his paid leave started on Oct. 19, 2012. He said Revering asked him on Oct. 18 to meet with her the next day, his day off, about an unrelated incident. He told her he was a single father with three kids and would have to bring them along or meet a few days later. Revering "later characterized this as being insubordinate," Watt's complaint said, noting that he was demoted from investigator to patrol sergeant. He said he was suspended 30 days without pay in May and is now on paid home assignment.
In his complaint, Erkenbrack said that, shortly after he asked questions about the Ramirez theft report, he was investigated for an incident that did not involve him. He was placed on administrative leave May 6 and says he was told to retire or face demotion or termination.
Although he is near retirement age, Erkenbrack said recently that he refused to go with a cloud over his head. He said that he was demoted from sergeant to patrol officer without a clear reason, and put on home duty at an officer's pay level.
Crystal Mayor Jim Adams, asked whether police had ignored the Ramirez theft report, said city attorneys agreed with police that it was a civil matter because no Crystal police were involved. He said the family filed a civil suit against their former landlord, who removed their belongings after the Strike Force raid.
Citizens United's Gross said that theft is a criminal, not civil, matter and that police should have investigated regardless of whether the Ramirez family filed a suit against their landlord.
Watt said that he felt raising questions about Revering and the lack of an investigation into the theft allegations was related to officer integrity. "People trust us. If I don't do my job, there is no reason to trust me, right?"
Adams, who joined the City Council in January, said both officers have filed grievances and asked for arbitration hearings. He said he knows little of why they are on home duty because city officials have said employee privacy rules prevent them from disclosing much information. He said he drafted a letter, signed by four other council members, seeking a legal opinion on why more information can't be released. He said the council and officials will discuss the officers' case in closed session Monday night.
"I need to have information from the administration so we can look at both sides and make a decision" regarding the officer claims, Adams said. "We are looking for any injustices that are done via procedure or civil liberty issues."