In a ruling with broad implications for police discipline, the Minnesota Supreme Court has rejected Richfield’s efforts to fire an officer who struck a Twin Cities teenager, saying the city must comply with an arbitrator who ruled in favor of the officer.

Richfield Police Officer Nate Kinsey was fired in 2016, about six months after he was caught on tape striking a young Somali man on the back of the head and swearing at him, an incident denounced by the Somali Human Rights Commission. Kinsey failed to report the use of force, as the police department required.

The Supreme Court decision, released Wednesday morning, was a closely watched test of the authority of labor arbitrators, who are held under Minnesota law to be the final judges of law and fact in disputes covered by many collective bargaining agreements.

Sean Gormley, executive director of Law Enforcement Labor Services Inc., the state’s largest law enforcement union and the one representing Kinsey, praised the ruling.

“Binding arbitration is a pillar of collective bargaining; it is imperative that employers and unions respect and abide by these decisions, even when the outcome is unfavorable to one side or the other,” Gormley said in a statement.

Kinsey, 43, of Cottage Grove, did not return a call seeking comment; a union spokesman said he intends to return to work as a police officer.

In her 10-page decision, Justice Anne K. McKeig rejected the argument that Richfield’s “public policy” interests in police discipline allowed it to override the arbitrator, who found that Kinsey’s use of force was not excessive.

“No doubt many observers would find Kinsey’s actions disturbing,” McKeig wrote. “But state statute requires arbitration, and the City’s contract with the Union gives the arbitrator the authority to decide what constitutes just cause for termination. Applying the statute and the language in the contract, and deferring to the facts as found by the arbitrator, we reverse the decision of the court of appeals.”

The dispute over Kinsey’s firing arose at a time of public outrage over police use of excessive force on the job and concern over a perceived lack of accountability for police actions. The Minnesota Chiefs of Police Association weighed in on Richfield’s side as the case moved through the courts, denouncing the arbitration system as “broken” with respect to disciplining officers.

Richfield City Manager Katie Rodriguez said the city is “disappointed.”

“However, we accept the court’s decision,” Rodriguez said in a statement, “and the Richfield Police Department will ensure that Officer Kinsey receives the necessary training before rejoining his fellow officers patrolling the street.”

Legislative remedies

Rep. Michael Howard, DFL-Richfield, a former Richfield City Council member, called the decision unfair.

“I share in the disappointment in the ruling and will be pursuing reform, including potential legislation, to address what is revealed in this ruling — a system that allows police officers that seriously betray the public trust to avoid serious consequences,” Howard said. “This is unfair to the vast majority of police officers that serve our community well and it makes all of us less safe.”

Andy Skoogman, head of the Minnesota Chiefs of Police Association, said local leaders need greater authority to address disciplinary problems.

“We believe the state’s highest court missed a unique opportunity to help law enforcement leaders across Minnesota improve the policing profession,” Skoogman said. “Had the Supreme Court upheld the Minnesota Appeals Court ruling that the city was justified in its termination of officer Nate Kinsey, municipal leaders would have more leeway to terminate employees who fail to follow policy and display a pattern of disciplinary problems.”

Omar Jamal, head of the Somali Human Rights Commission, said he respects the process and called the decision “OK.”

“At the end of the day, I do respect the decision,” Jamal said. “Everybody should have their chance in court. This time, apparently it worked for him. I hope this will be a lesson learned.

“We will reach out and sit down with him, and try to enrich the process of different cultures, different people and different perspectives,” Jamal added.

Richfield officials said Kinsey will undertake a “rigorous retraining program,” including a comprehensive review of department polices on use of force and other topics and training on implicit bias.

Kinsey must also get his Minnesota peace officer’s license reinstated by the Minnesota Peace Officer Standards and Training Board.

 

Correction: Previous versions of this article included a summary headline that mischaracterized a group that criticized the court’s ruling. It was a group representing chiefs of police.