A Hutchinson police officer admitted to superiors last fall that he gave people marijuana as part of a state training exercise in Minneapolis, a month after prosecutors declared they lacked sufficient evidence to charge him.
The officer, Karl Willers, also told his department that between 30 and 40 percent of his training class distributed narcotics in order to perform observations, and that a coordinator of the program told them to get rid of the drugs after the allegations went public, according to a Hutchinson investigative report obtained through an open records request.
The Hennepin County attorney’s office said this week that it will not charge Willers in light of his admission to giving people drugs because he made the disclosure with immunity from prosecution.
Controversy arose last year when a YouTube video was posted by Occupy Minnesota activists who said outstate police gave them marijuana as part of the Drug Recognition Evaluator (DRE) program. Practiced nationally, the program typically involves police studying the symptoms of people who are already intoxicated so they can spot similar people in the field.
A series of documents, released late Wednesday, show that in addition to his statement during an internal investigation, Willers said he provided drugs in a memo to police department superiors the day the YouTube video was publicized. The Hennepin County Attorney’s Office said Thursday it is reviewing that new information, provided to it by the Star Tribune. The documents also show that another Hutchinson officer admitted to providing people with drugs.
Responding to the allegation that up to 40 percent of the training class distributed drugs to test subjects, Department of Public Safety spokesman Bruce Gordon said in an e-mail that “there was not enough evidence to support charges.” The DRE program, which is overseen by the Department of Public Safety, resumed this June after being suspended for about a year. Officers will now go to California to study intoxicated people.
Willers was one of six officers who declined to speak with state investigators conducting a probe in response to the controversy. His partner from the training did talk, telling investigators that Willers offered marijuana to an activist in downtown Minneapolis’ Peavey Plaza and that two people later smoked it in the back seat of their squad car near the training site in Richfield.
In September 2012, the Hennepin County attorney’s office declined to charge Willers — or any other officers — because of conflicting witness statements, a lack of drug evidence and the possibility that only a petty misdemeanor was committed since Willers was not reimbursed.
Disciplinary documents obtained from the Hutchinson Police Department show that in October 2012, during that department’s internal investigation, Willers admitted to providing the marijuana. Willers received a four-week unpaid suspension, half of which was stayed if he completed an ethics training course and made a subsequent ethics presentation to the department. His suspension was to be followed by two months of probation.
Willers told an internal investigator that he obtained the marijuana from a Farmington police officer in the training program who confiscated it from what the report said were “some kids” who had agreed to be evaluated. Regarding the Peavey Plaza incident, Willers said both he and his partner gave out the marijuana. Willers estimated he gave it to a total of four people during the training.
The report also describes other troubling activity in the program, which involved outstate officers roaming the area looking for test subjects as they apparently felt pressure to perform evaluations. Willers said his partner twice gave someone money to buy crack, which was smoked in the back of a squad car. Willers said he called a friend’s “pot head” brother and told him to get high with others so the officers could perform evaluations.
No training instructors told them to distribute marijuana, but past participants in the class said or implied that it was OK, according to Willers’ statement. He said he agreed with statements made by others during the criminal investigation that the program’s instructions were vague on how to find test subjects. When the YouTube video was released, Willers and his partner reported it to a coordinator of the program, who “told them to make the marijuana disappear,” according to the report.
In an interview, Hutchinson Police Chief Dan Hatten called Willers “a fine officer” and said he is doing “what he’s been asked to do” as discipline.
Gordon, of the Department of Public Safety, did not address an allegation that a program coordinator said the marijuana should “disappear,” adding that the coordinator is on leave unrelated to the DRE program.
State Trooper Nick Otterson was placed on paid leave last year after one test subject accused him of being present while another officer “handed me a bag of pot.” Otterson has since returned to regular duty and state officials said no discipline was imposed.
‘Same rights as Joe Blow’
Prosecutors cannot use Willers’ October admission because he gave it after receiving a “Garrity Warning,” which prevents compelled public employee statements from being used in criminal proceedings. Garrity Warnings are commonly used in internal affairs investigations, since officers risk being fired if they do not make a statement.
“What prevents us from being able to take a second look at this and potentially bring charges is that the Garrity Warning and the Garrity protections prohibit us from using any of that information,” said Chuck Laszewski, a spokesman for the Hennepin County attorney’s office, before Hutchinson released Willers’ more detailed statements about the program Wednesday afternoon.
Prosecutors were unaware of Willers’ admission until the Star Tribune inquired on Tuesday.
Fred Bruno, an attorney who often defends police officers, notes that members of the public have similar protections against compelled testimony. “It protects the public from having a bad cop,” Bruno said. “But it also protects a cop, and gives him or her the same rights as Joe Blow.”
Willers’ admission could have implications for an ongoing civil suit. Several Occupy activists have filed a federal lawsuit against police officers and departments across the state; the plaintiffs allege that they were subjects of an experiment that violated their constitutional rights by participating in the DRE program.
The government defendants seeking to dismiss the case have so far made legal arguments under the assumption the drugs were provided, without formally conceding that fact. Nathan Hansen, an attorney for the activists, said Willers’ admission could be important if a judge decides the case can proceed.
“I think that it’s pretty significant because it’s an admission,” Hansen said. “They’ve admitted at least that that happened.”