Former Minneapolis cop says actions in Green Bay didn't justify firing

  • Article by: DAVID CHANEN , Star Tribune
  • Updated: January 11, 2014 - 9:35 PM

Two officers fired for an off-duty incident in Green Bay have appealed their terminations, denying they used any slurs.

A former Minneapolis police officer who is appealing his Dec. 3 firing by Police Chief Janeé Harteau has for the first time spoken publicly about what happened on the June night in question in Green Bay, Wis.

Brian Thole and fellow officer Shawn Powell are fighting their terminations for allegedly using racial and sexual slurs and for berating Green Bay officers for their handling of the off-duty pair’s scuffle with a group of black men.

Thole said late last week that in fact, he and Powell were assault victims and that he feels betrayed by the Minneapolis Police Department administration, the police union and Green Bay officers.

Though Harteau could not discuss what specific discipline she handed out, she strongly defended her decision, asserting that the officers violated the department’s core values and goals.

“When an officer identifies themselves as a Minneapolis cop, it does change the scope and severity of the incident, because their actions will reflect and impact other members of this department,” she said.

Harteau also said the discipline was the direct outcome of an internal affairs investigation and that any discipline case has many more components than can be revealed to the public. “To tell someone their career is over is very hard,” she added. “If that doesn’t bother a chief, they shouldn’t be a chief.”

When Thole and Powell, patrol partners on the city’s North Side and members of the SWAT team, were put on paid administrative leave in July, official reaction was swift and severe. Harteau and former Mayor R.T. Rybak said they were angered and appalled by the officers’ racist and derogatory language. Harteau also announced she would initiate a dialogue with cultural and faith leaders to restore public trust in the department. And the Minneapolis police union didn’t contest the firings, meaning the officers are paying for their own legal representation.

Best friends Thole, 36, and Powell, 35, who is now in Alabama for military training, have plunged into an unpredictable appeals process that experts say will weigh officers’ responsibilities for off-duty conduct against police department expectations, as well as public safety and accountability concerns.

It could take a year before the city’s civil service commission, which will hear the case in a trial setting, issues a ruling. And if the firings aren’t overturned, the officers can appeal their case to Hennepin County District Court.

Thole’s attorney, Gregg Corwin, said he strongly believes that any neutral party who reviews the investigative reports and videos from Green Bay will find that the officers did nothing that would justify termination.

Thole tells his story

Thole, who said he talked to Powell before agreeing to an interview, said that when Harteau personally informed the two on Dec. 3 that they were losing their jobs, she offered no reason.

He became emotional at times as he discussed the events that led to the officers’ dismissal.

“My whole life has been about helping people,” he said. “I haven’t lied about anything that happened in Green Bay. I’m human and made mistakes, and was willing to take my licks. But termination? I never thought I’d have to deal with an administration that would stab me in the back.”

He said he regrets that while talking to Green Bay officers, he referred to Harteau’s sexual orientation in what he called a nonderogatory way. He said he also overheard a Green Bay police lieutenant warn Powell “to not use that kind of language,” but doesn’t know if Powell said something racist.

Thole was heading up a major burglary ring investigation when Powell invited him to ride their Harleys to Green Bay on June 28 to visit Powell’s father’s grave.

Powell, a former Green Bay officer, told a colleague he was in town, and it was announced at roll call, Thole said. At dinner, they briefly chatted with two officers. According to the Green Bay report, that’s when Powell allegedly used a racial epithet, hours before their confrontation with a group of black men, Thole said. Both Minneapolis officers are white.

Thole denies that. “Neither one of us used the ‘N’ word,” he said. “If I was in uniform and I heard somebody using it, I would tell them not to do it again.”

About 1 a.m., they stopped at a bar for a final drink. He said he’d had a maximum of five drinks in the seven hours since he arrived in Green Bay, and was not drunk.

As they walked the three blocks to their hotel, a large, rowdy group of men approached, he said. As Thole and Powell went around them, one said something to Powell, who approached him. Three men from the group then rushed toward the officers and one man was held back by his friend, Thole said.

“I told them we were off-duty cops and we weren’t looking for any trouble,” he said.

At that moment, he said, the man being held back lunged toward Thole and appeared to be ready to fight. Thole said he landed a punch and “was looking for an escape route” when a squad car approached. Several of the men were slipping away as Thole tried in vain to get the officer to apprehend them.

Thole said he told the officer he didn’t want his name in a report because the case would go nowhere. He also said that “we have a lesbian chief that’s looking to fire people for any reason.”

He said he made the remark out of frustration over the officer’s lack of response and out of concern that the report might be used against him because, he said, Harteau had removed several longtime SWAT members for no apparent reason.

During the scuffle, Powell suffered a black eye and cut lip. When Powell decided to file a report, Thole said a lieutenant at the police station didn’t take them seriously.

“We were pissed, but we weren’t looking for any preferential treatment,” Thole said.

‘Turned into Lucifer’

Green Bay Police Department Lt. Chad Ramos declined to comment on Thole’s account.

During the investigation, his department sent a 40-page report about the incident to Minneapolis police. There were also multiple videos from squads and the police station lobby.

Thole said he tried to apologize to Harteau for his reference to her sexual orientation, but that she declined to meet with him. He said he hired a diversity counselor to talk about the incident and was assured that he didn’t have issues with gay people. He said he finds it ironic that one of the officers he worked often and well with during his burglary investigation was Sgt. Holly Keegel, the chief’s then-domestic partner (the two were married in August).

Thole said he strongly believes that his firing was politically motivated and that Harteau was backed into a corner.

But in her interview, the chief denied that Thole’s comment influenced her decision.

“The fact that people would believe that I would actually use something personal and so benign to influence my decision is very disappointing to me,” she said.

Thole said his life of public and military service has been upended by the firing. He briefly contemplated not appealing it, he said, but concluded that “why wouldn’t I fight allegations I didn’t do?”

“But you can’t repair the damage,” he said. “I’ve been turned into Lucifer.”

 

David Chanen • 612-673-4465

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