One longtime Crystal police officer has been fired and another threatened with dismissal after raising questions about their chief's past conduct and their department's handling of a family's theft report. The report stemmed from a raid by the now-defunct Metro Gang Strike Force.
Officer Rob Erkenbrack, a 27-year veteran who was demoted from sergeant and put on paid leave this spring, said he received a termination letter Tuesday. It came less than two weeks after he requested and was denied a copy of an internal investigation summary that he thought would clear him of a policy violation. Erkenbrack said his police union attorney told him the union will challenge his dismissal.
Officer Alan Watt, a 17-year veteran who has been on paid home assignment for about 10 months, said he faces dismissal Sept. 6 if he doesn't give the city documents he has collected about Police Chief Stephanie Revering's alleged misconduct, all his medical records and other data.
"To me, this is simple retaliation. They are not being reasonable," Watt said.
The two officers contend the city is trying to use minor policy infractions to get rid of them in retaliation for raising questions about Revering and whether the Ramirez family theft report was investigated.
But City Manager Anne Norris said actions against the officers had nothing to do with retaliation for the complaints they filed with the city in June against Revering and other officers, or for questions they raised about the theft report.
Norris said she couldn't discuss why the actions were taken against the two officers because it involves private employee data. She said that Erkenbrack's termination isn't final until any challenge is resolved, and that Watt misinterpreted the letter he got, noting that a city cannot require an employee to provide private medical records.
Norris said the 2008 Ramirez theft report was investigated properly. And a city release said the officers' allegations against Revering, who became chief last fall, and another officer involved incidents from years ago that were investigated and resulted in no disciplinary action.
Erkenbrack and Watt raised questions about the theft case a year ago after a class-action lawsuit was settled and related documents about misconduct by the Metro Gang Strike Force in the Ramirez and other cases were released. The force was disbanded in July 2009.
In July 2012, Ramirez family members were awarded about $26,000 in compensation as part of an $850,000 settlement against the Strike Force. Nearly a year ago, an activist group, Communities United Against Police Brutality, filed complaints on behalf of the Ramirez family alleging that the city of Crystal had not investigated or helped the family recover their furniture, clothing and other belongings removed from their apartment after a Strike Force raid.
The city's response
Crystal hired attorney Mary Dobbins to review how the Ramirez case was handled. Her 11-page investigation and police reports on the case were released in response to a Star Tribune request under the state's Data Practices Act.
Dobbins found that the Ramirez family blamed their landlord and apartment owner for taking their possessions, not Brooklyn Park Officer Greg Burstad, who led the Strike Force raid on their apartment in July 2008. Burstad was also investigated by his own department, which suspended him for a week without pay for excessive force and other policy violations.
Dobbins noted that the family filed its theft report almost two months after the raid, on the same day they sued the apartment owner and landlord. The family won a $20,000 settlement in July 2009 against them, and agreed not to file any further claims against them. After that, they began blaming Burstad for the loss of their belongings, Dobbins found.
She interviewed former Crystal Officer Brandon Johnson, who investigated the theft. His report, provided to the newspaper, describes his interviews with most parties involved. Dobbins concluded that Johnson acted properly and that there was no cover-up of Burstad's actions, as Communities United has suggested.
Communities United also has filed complaints alleging misconduct by Burstad, Revering and other Crystal officers with the Minnesota Peace Officers Standards and Training (POST).
POST Executive Director Neil Melton said he has received an investigation of the Ramirez case, done by St. Cloud police, that will be reviewed by his board members before they decide in October on possible discipline against any officers.
"The complaint is very complicated. It has many facets going on since 2008," Melton said. If the board finds misconduct, it can issue discipline ranging from a letter or reprimand to revocation of an officer's police license, he said.