An arbitrator has upheld the firing of a St. Paul police officer who stood by as an ex-cop assaulted a civilian outside an East side bar in 2018 and was caught on camera mocking the victim’s injuries.
Nathan Smith, one of five officers Chief Todd Axtell dismissed last summer following revelations that they failed to intervene during an unreported attack outside Checkerbar Food and Liquor, will not be reinstated on the force.
At the time, Axtell condemned what he called a “significant policy violation” stemming from the officers’ inability to live up to community standards. It marked the largest firing in the department’s recent history.
“Officers are expected to protect the public and tell the truth,” Axtell said in a statement Monday. “There is no room for deceit on the Saint Paul Police Department.”
Internal affairs records identified the officers involved as Smith, Nicholas Grundei, Robert Luna, Christopher Rhoades and Jordan Wild. The St. Paul Police Federation is awaiting arbitration decisions for the other four men.
“We are very disappointed in the arbitrator’s decision and we are thinking about Nate Smith and his family,” said Federation President Paul Kuntz. “His work record was exemplary up to this point.”
Smith, a 7-year veteran, appealed his termination to the Bureau of Mediation Services, and both parties argued their cases over a four-day hearing in January.
The incident involved former St. Paul officer Tou Cha, who beat another man with a baton outside Checkerbar, the Payne-Phalen neighborhood pizza joint he owns with his wife. He was later convicted of third-degree assault and sentenced to 90 days in jail and 5 years’ probation for his role in the violent attack that left a 24-year-old man with serious head injuries.
Cha, an officer for 11 years, resigned in 2005 after pleading guilty to lending out his service pistol, which was then used to shoot up the home of a Hmong leader.
In his March 20 decision, arbitrator Stephen F. Befort ruled in the department’s favor, stating that 13 of 16 alleged acts of misconduct by Smith were sufficiently proven.
“A bar patron who is beaten bloody by a bar owner while a police officer stands idly by is in no better shape than if beaten by the officer directly,” Befort wrote in a scathing 24-page report, noting that video evidence directly contradicted many of Smith’s statements. The arbitrator berated Smith for what appeared to “deep-seated attitudes and beliefs.”
“While inaction and dishonesty are very troublesome behaviors, treating Hmong bar patrons as substandard citizens is even more so. Officer Smith and his colleagues laughed and joked in response to assaults. They mocked individuals who were injured and bleeding,” he wrote. “ ... It is difficult to imagine that a modest disciplinary action would correct ethnic insensitivity.”
‘We’ll let ol’ boy solve this’
Police responded to Checkerbar, located at 992 Arcade St., on June 17, 2018, after a fight broke out at a family gathering. The five fired officers were the first of 11 to arrive on the scene that night.
Smith and his partner, Rhoades, were patrolling the area around 10 p.m. when they happened upon a confrontation outside the restaurant, where 15 to 20 people were yelling.
Surveillance video taken from the business, squad dashcam and several officers’ body-worn cameras captured a series of chaotic altercations that followed. According to the investigative report:
Smith’s squad camera recorded a fight between two bar patrons and a fellow officer handcuffing the suspected aggressor before placing him in the back of a police cruiser. The skirmish did not appear on Smith’s body camera because it wasn’t immediately turned on, arbitration records show.
Once activated, Smith’s body camera depicts a group of patrons, including the victim, Cha and others chatting on the corner outside. Watching the scene, Smith said: “We’ll let ol’ boy solve this. He’s got a baton.”
Neither officer attempts to interview the perceived victim, but they verbally agree that it’s OK if he decides to leave. Meanwhile, security cameras show Cha circulating through the crowd holding a baton in his hand.
Smith observes aloud to his partner: “Tou Cha is just waiting, man.” Moments later, Cha can be seen on video striking a man in the head, who falls in the street. After the man recovers from the blow, Smith remarks that Cha “was about to knock that guy out right in front of us.”
Cha then approaches the group of officers to apologize, adding that everyone is headed back inside.
“No, that’s OK,” Smith replies, directing Cha’s attention to a man later identified as Shawn Vang, who Smith accuses of “trying to act all tough.”
“I would like to punch his face,” Cha said, referring to Vang with an expletive.
Cha then proceeds to pepper spray the crowd and Smith said, “this will take care of itself.” Cameras catch Cha blasting mace directing in Vang’s face, as Smith laughs in the background.
At this point, Smith and several officers say “overwatch” and appear to purposely turn their bodies — and cameras — away from the commotion on Arcade Street. Smith gestures to a junior officer who hadn’t initially noticed, and he shifts to face the other direction as well.
As the crowd dwindles, the officers decide it’s safe to leave and they release the man arrested earlier to his wife. Smith and Rhoades move their squad car a block away, within view of the bar should more trouble erupt.
Not long after, the officers notice activity in the alley and their dashcam captures Cha clubbing Vang with a wooden instrument. Body cameras show another man on the ground bleeding from the head, who Cha points to and accuses of being a “gangster” trying to provoke a fight. Smith yells to the victim, “get out of here, dude,” and a female patron helps lead him away.
Nearby, Ashley Vang is screaming to the cops to help her injured brother. “He needs an EMT. Take him to the hospital!” she pleads. Rhoades lifts his flashlight to illuminate Shawn Vang’s bloody face, as one of the officers conclude “he is going to need a medic.”
An unidentified male comes to assist Vang, who isn’t able to walk on his own. Smith remarks: “He has been causing problems all night.”
“The videos show that neither Smith nor Rhoades took any steps to assist the two injured bar patrons,” arbitration records show. “The two officers also did not take any steps to curb Tou Cha’s activities.”
Vang was hospitalized with a concussion and head wounds that required 24 staples to close, according to charges.
Nearly a week later, Vang’s mother filed a complaint with St. Paul police that prompted an internal affairs investigation. During an interview five months after the assault occurred, Smith denied intentionally turning his body camera away from the scene to conceal evidence and claimed that he never saw Cha armed with anything besides mace.
The investigator determined that Smith was guilty of failing to perform his duties, making false statements and late activation of his body camera. That report was submitted to the Police Civilian Internal Affairs Commission, which recommended his firing. Axtell made the final decision, later denouncing Smith’s conduct as the “most egregious of any officer he had ever witnessed.”
But at arbitration, Smith testified that he hadn’t seen much of the violence depicted on video that night and never heard what Ashley Vang was saying when she called for medical assistance. He explained that he chose not to use force to halt Cha’s actions “out of concern that active intervention would escalate tensions.”
Although the police union acknowledged some missteps, they argued that termination was too severe a punishment because it failed to take into account Smith’s longstanding work record, which includes numerous thank you notes and two letters of recognition — one for applying a tourniquet to help save 4-year-old gunshot victim and another for his assistance solving the sexual assault of a minor.
Smith became a St. Paul officer in 2012 and was disciplined only one other time, receiving an oral reprimand for a squad crash. Four years later, he earned the department’s Lifesaving Award for climbing over the railing of the Earl Street bridge to rescue a suicidal 15-year-old boy dangling off the ledge.
Staff writers Emma Nelson and Libor Jany contributed to this report.