A Hennepin County deputy has filed an employment lawsuit against Sheriff Rich Stanek, claiming his canine partner was retired prematurely because the officer asked pointed questions during a candidate forum last year.

The lawsuit claims that in January 2015, two months after Stanek won re-election, the sheriff retired Ethan Weinzierl’s four-year-old German shepherd in retaliation for publicly questioning the boss. The lawsuit also said the retirement of the dog, which was trained in narcotics detection and apprehension, cost Weinzierl substantial compensation because he was moved out of the canine unit, where overtime assignments are common.

Stanek’s office deferred comment to the county attorney handling the case. The county attorney has yet to file a formal response to the lawsuit, now in U.S. District Court in Minneapolis, and declined to comment.

The lawsuit seeks unspecified damages for what Wein­zierl says is a violation of his First Amendment right to free speech tracing back to a candidate forum held by the Hennepin County Sheriff’s Deputies Association in July 2014. The union members were allowed to question Stanek for 45 minutes after he gave a prepared statement seeking their endorsement.

Weinzierl, 42, asked Stanek about widespread low morale in the department and a desire to use the dogs for more meaningful work, such as tracking suspects, rather than have the dogs cooped up in cars while their handlers served routine civil papers such as eviction notices.

Stanek responded that morale “is what you make of it.”

The sheriff’s voice grew louder and his tone sharper in response to the question about dogs and the serving of civil papers, saying, “It’s one of our core services, though. What would Eddie Frizell tell you?” said Stanek, mentioning his challenger in the election. “That we’re not going to serve civil papers? We’re not going to serve warrants? We’re going to eliminate the canine or reduce them dramatically? What can he tell you that I can’t tell you today?”

The entire exchange was recorded and is available on YouTube. The sheriff became “visibly irritated” at the questions, the lawsuit said. The exchange lasted almost 10 minutes. At the end, Stanek said he wasn’t upset by the frank discussion, the lawsuit said.

Weinzierl even quipped: “You are not going to take my dog away?”

Stanek responded, “If I did business like that, I would have fun each and every day I came to work. I’d never have a bad day. But I don’t.”

After the forum, the union endorsed Frizell over Stanek by a margin of 75 percent to 10 percent. Stanek won re-election to a third term in November. On Dec. 30, he informed Weinzierl that his dog, Eddie, would be retired at age four in early January.

Police or sheriff’s dogs are usually retired closer to age 10, the lawsuit said.

Vested Interest in K-9s Inc., a Massachusetts-based nonprofit organization that provides bullet and stab protective vests for Eddie and other department dogs, confirmed the career span of the average canine officer. A spokeswoman said the assumption is that a dog will need two vests during its working career. The vests last five years.

It costs $15,000 to $19,000 to train a single police dog, according to the National Police Dog Foundation.

When Eddie was retired, there was at least one other department dog closer to retirement age. That dog’s handler, however, didn’t question Stanek at the forum, the lawsuit noted.

When Weinzierl asked why his dog was retired, command staff told him, the “sheriff wanted to go in a different direction,” the lawsuit said.

During his time in the department, Eddie was a skilled tracking dog who helped nab dozens of suspects, according to previous news stories. He was also often used to set up a perimeter when the SWAT team was deployed and accompanied deputies serving arrest warrants. His ear became permanently flopped when a suspect yanked on it.

After his dog retired, Weinzierl was removed from the canine unit, the report said.

Weinzierl’s lawyer, Bryce Miller, declined to make further comment.


Twitter: @rochelleolson