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Suspended police chief tasked with implementing change

The Cloquet Police Department shares a building with the Cloquet Area Fire District's Station #1. Jamie Lund/jlund@pinejournal.com

It's been nearly a month since Cloquet Police Chief Steve Stracek was placed on paid administrative leave by the Cloquet City Council, and citizens are still mostly in the dark about the reasons behind the dramatic actions taken by elected officials.

Interim City Administrator James Barclay has made minimal public statements since the March 16 emergency meeting, but did confirm Monday that the investigation of the complaint against Stracek "is ongoing at this time" by a firm hired out of the Twin Cities.

Although the contents of the complaint against Stracek are not public record while the investigation is ongoing, the police officers' union Teamsters Local 346 released a statement to the Pine Journal March 28, basically summarizing the complaint by the police union members:

"After all other attempts at communication failed, members of the Cloquet Police Department conducted a 'Vote of No Confidence' in Chief Stracek. This vote was the last resort to express concern over the chief's lack of leadership, lack of communication, lack of support for officers, and poor policy decisions that have created an alarming state of morale and concerns regarding public and officer safety."

Stracek was hired in August 2014, after Wade Lamirande retired as chief of police and the assistant police chief, Terry Hill, also retired. Stracek's appointment was the result of a national search which included finalists from as far away as Florida and Arizona and culminated in Cloquet's own backyard. Stracek, who lived in Esko, had spent his entire 21-year-career working with the Duluth Police Department.

When he was hired, Stracek was tasked with tackling a number of issues highlighted in a Cloquet Police Department analysis completed in January 2014.

Former Cloquet Mayor Bruce Ahlgren said the police department study was suggested by Lamirande the year before.

"When we first gave Wade the job (of police chief in December 2003), we tasked him with a list of 16-18 things we'd like to see changed and he did that," Ahlgren said. "He went one by one and he did a very very good job."

The study in 2014 was an opportunity to have "outside eyes" look at the police department, Ahlgren said, not the result of any particular event or problem.

Dennis Cusick, executive director of the Upper Midwest Community Policing Institute, and David Pecchia, executive director of the Minnesota Chiefs of Police Association, provided a long list of suggested improvements in the report, which is posted on the city's website (www.ci.cloquet.mn.us) under City Departments/Police and then Law Enforcement Study.

Although the consultants praised the work Lamirande had done to transform the department "from an organization with a focus on law enforcement to a police service organization," their report revealed flaws in the way day-to-day patrol officer activities were tracked — only 25 percent of the hours could be documented — along with a lower clearance rate for crime investigations (compared to similar-sized Minnesota cities used in the analysis) as well as issues with accountability and organizational structure.

Suggestions for improvement ranged from changing work schedules in order to maximize manpower during peak days and times, to changing the organizational structure to help with efficiency and succession planning, to updating the department's operations manual and changing the way evidence was handled and investigations tracked. They suggested staggering detective shifts and assigning a K-9 to a patrol officer rather than a detective to increase its availability.

Changing the schedules was one of the key ideas in the report, which noted in its findings: "The current patrol schedule is out of sync with the service demand, is inflexible, is designed contrary to the literature regarding health, safety and productivity of the officers and appears to be responsible for an excessive use of sick leave, especially with respect to the night shift."

"We wanted Steve Stracek to continue what Wade started," said Ahlgren, who left office at the end of 2014 after losing his re-election bid to current mayor Dave Hallback. "Personally, I think Steve did that. But change is hard."

The Pine Journal's requests for interviews about any changes at the police department since Stracek was hired were referred to Barclay, who said he didn't know enough to comment. Stracek also declined comment.

However, according to minutes from the Feb. 21 Cloquet City Council meeting when Stracek updated the council and mayor, a number of the suggested changes have been implemented at the police department.

The following changes are listed in the minutes, among others:

• The department changed its organizational structure by hiring two commanders to serve in administration under the police chief. Job descriptions were updated for commanders and sergeants.

• Non-enforcement roles were delegated to non-sworn staff, which received additional training. Crime analysis and evidence management is now handled by administrative assistant Nicole Eckenberg instead of individual officers.

• The K-9 was transferred to the Patrol Division and the handler now serves a dual role as K-9 handler and supervisor of patrol staff.

• In 2016, investigative overtime totaled 93 hours compared to 212 hours in 2015.

Hallback, a 27-year veteran of the Cloquet Police Department who retired before Stracek was hired, is cited in the minutes twice as questioning why a third detective position wasn't filled [after former detective Derek Randall moved into one of the two commander positions]. According to the minutes, Stracek said he preferred to rotate the officers through the position, explaining "there are capable officers and [a] K-9 officer, former detective officers, who are very capable of handling this."

According to the minutes, Councilors Kerry Kolodge and Jeff Rock asked about overtime and sick time usage during the same meeting. Stracek said 48 out of 73 sick leave events were at the beginning or end of a rotation, an established pattern. The meeting minutes note that the department was "currently restricting time off to maintain staff." Stracek also referred to staff struggles with work-related stress and burnout.

Stracek was supposed to return to finish going through the report at a future city meeting. Less than a month later, he was placed on leave.

These and other meeting minutes can be found on the city's website (www.ci.cloquet.mn.us) under Agendas and Minutes/City Council.

In other news relating to the Cloquet Police Department and the police chief, the city has yet to produce any information in response to numerous public data requests made by the Pine Journal over the past month and a half.

Attorney and Minnesota Newspaper Association adviser Mark Anfinson — regarded as an open meeting guru by many — previously told the Pine Journal he believes the city council and mayor may have violated Minnesota's open meeting law in as many as three different ways on March 16.

Barclay informed the Pine Journal via mail that the city will not release the transcript of discussion held during the closed portion of the meeting "because data accessible to you and data not accessible to you are so inextricably intertwined that segregation of the data would leave the remaining part of the data with little informational value."

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