Minneapolis Police Chief Janeé Harteau never wavered on her highly publicized decision last December to fire two police officers accused of using racial slurs, berating local officers and disparaging the chief herself during an off-duty incident in Green Bay, Wis.
Last month, she dug in even deeper when officers Brian Thole and Shawn Powell tried to regain their jobs before the city’s Civil Service Commission. She testified that the officers’ terminations were necessary to maintain public trust and that their behavior damaged the department and the profession.
Now the commission has vindicated Harteau’s stance, upholding the dismissals of Thole and Powell, and Harteau still says it’s been a difficult episode for the department.
In a statement issued Monday, Harteau said it’s never easy to fire someone, and in an interview several hours later she added that she was mortified when she saw the video that captured some of Powell and Thole’s behavior.
“It was their plain disrespect for everyone,” Harteau said. “It started in the streets and ended back at the police station. Nothing was enough for them.”
The June 2013 incident was the subject of a 40-page report released by the Green Bay police that triggered an internal affairs investigation in Minneapolis. Another report released this June by the commission provides a detailed timeline of the officers’ actions.
Thole and Powell have denied the allegations, and their lawyer, Gregg Corwin, declined to comment. The police union didn’t contest the firings, which meant the officers had to pay their own legal fees.
When the incident first came to light, it brought immediate condemnation from city, police and union leaders. The Star Tribune learned days later that at least three more Minneapolis officers had been cited for assault months before in a similar incident in Apple Valley.
The two cases ignited a round of public recriminations and reawakened simmering complaints about racial intolerance by police officers. Community activists held a news conference on the front steps of City Hall to call for a U.S. Justice Department audit of the department.
The June commission report and termination recommendation were followed by a hearing in front of the full commission, which decided last week to uphold the firings.
What happened in Green Bay
The report offered this chronology:
The officers, both decorated officers in the military and the Police Department, took a motorcycle ride to Green Bay to mark the anniversary of Powell’s father’s death. While at a downtown bar in the early evening, Thole was talking to a Green Bay officer. A car with a black driver passed by, and Thole said, “What is that? Green Bay is too [racial epithet] friendly.”
The officers went to another bar. As they left, a man from a rowdy group in the street called Powell “white boy,” he later told investigators. After confronting the man, the officers said, they felt threatened and identified themselves as off-duty police officers.
Thole later said that he believed that he was going to be assaulted, and punched one of the men in the head.
Two men from the group told Green Bay police officers that the fight began after Thole and Powell used a racial slur. Powell said he was initially grateful that police were on the scene, but grew frustrated when officers didn’t appear to take them seriously — particularly their claim that they been the assault victims.
During the same stretch of the evening, another Green Bay officer said he heard Powell use the same racial slur and that Thole referred to black men from the group as doing their “monkey thing.”
When another officer said he was going to take a report on the incident, Thole objected, making a personal slur about Chief Harteau and asserting that she was looking to fire people on her staff for any reason.
Thole also called the Green Bay Police Department “a clown show,” according to the report. When the two officers went to the station to meet with a lieutenant, Thole was asked about his use of racial slurs that evening and replied that it was his First Amendment right to use whatever language he wanted.
Officers fought firings
Last fall, the officers were told that several violations of the department’s professional code of conduct had been sustained. Harteau reviewed the recommendations and decided that termination was reasonable.
In a memo to Thole, she wrote that his derogatory reference toward her is “something I believe every leader must accept as part of their role.” But she said she had heard from members of her department and the city’s LGBT community who were concerned about his ability to serve fairly and equitably.
Both officers sought anger-management counseling and diversity training after the incident. They told the commission that they believed that the internal investigation was flawed because investigators didn’t travel to Green Bay to interview witnesses. And they argued that they were being disciplined more harshly than other officers who faced similar allegations. They also cited their exemplary work and military records.
The commission said in its report that the officers’ extensive military experience and SWAT training for high-risk situations were not reflected in the poor judgment and lack of self-control they displayed in Green Bay. The report also said that a cultural diversity training coach had testified that the officers might not be “safe to put back on the streets, even though they could change and grow.”
Harteau said Monday that her decision to fire the pair is in keeping with the department’s “culture of accountability.”
“This is not who we are. This about these two people,” she said. “I didn’t want people to stereotype the department for the action of others.”
Harteau said anti-bias training and outreach to minority communities are underway to ensure that there is no culture of bias in the department.
“I’ve heard more compliments than complaints about the department in the past six months than in my entire career,” she said. “And those negative incidents are coming further and further apart. That’s not by accident.”
She said Thole and Powell were good police officers — until the Green Bay incident.
“I’ve given them awards myself,” said Harteau. “Their firing wasn’t from one single incident. They kept on with their misconduct. This is who they are.”