A statewide police group is protesting the barring of an honor guard from standing vigil for a fallen suburban fire chief inside the Hennepin County Medical Examiner’s Office.
The Minnesota Police and Peace Officers Association (MPPOA) said in a letter dated Thursday to Dr. Andrew Baker, the county’s chief medical examiner, that the honor guard “was turned away and prevented from being inside, as usual custom.”
The letter, signed by MPPOA Executive Director Brian Peters, said, “This is, as you might recognize, extremely disappointing not only [to] me, but to other law enforcement personnel.”
Fridley Fire Chief Michael Spencer died on Sept. 13 at age 53 after a medical emergency at his home.
The MPPOA said an informal honor guard made up of Fridley firefighters went to the Medical Examiner’s Office that same day but were denied entry and told that coronavirus precautions were behind the decision.
The contingent stood their guard outside and were unable to use the restroom inside the building, the association said.
The MPPOA explained that the presence of an honor guard is an important tradition of dignity that ensures fallen officers are not alone in the time leading up to memorial services, and the Fridley contingent met no resistance while at North Memorial Health Hospital in Robbinsdale, where the fire chief died.
Shawn Wilson, operations manager for the Medical Examiner’s Office, said in a written response to the MPPOA that the facility has been operating since mid-March with only essential employees and services allowed inside.
As a result, Wilson continued, honor guards have been kept outside the building.
Wilson did concede that a member of the Fridley honor guard was denied use of a lobby restroom.
He called it an “unfortunate incident ... that has been rectified with our staff.”
Peters acknowledged that the coronavirus pandemic played a role, but “I could not find any notice of those new procedures on the HCME’s website,” he wrote in his letter to Baker.
He added that it was “troubling to have heard others have been allowed — or given special permission” to be inside the Medical Examiner’s Office building or been allowed to use the restroom.
Peters pointed out that other facilities in the county and elsewhere in the metro area continue to welcome law enforcement honor guards.
The Law Enforcement Memorial Association said Thursday it has been organizing honor guards for many years and has not been alerted to any similar problems elsewhere in the state.
At the Midwest Medical Examiner’s Office in Anoka, “law enforcement typically have two people with the body at all times and then escort the deceased to the funeral home,” said Anoka County spokesman Erik Thorson.
“We generally work with whatever process they have, and they coordinate with families as well. ... From what we know, our process has worked well.”