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Report reveals story behind police complaint

Prior to a paid suspension last spring, then-Cloquet Police Chief Steve Stracek adjusted work schedules, removed the use of overtime pay for training, reduced the investigations unit from three detectives to one and made a series of other reforms.

The reforms had once been supported by the city council, which ultimately suspended Stracek following a vote of no confidence from the rank-and-file officers under his supervision.

An attorney hired by the city of Cloquet to investigate a litany of complaints against Stracek ultimately found the police chief was doing what was expected of him.

Part of his job was to implement changes recommended in a 2014 study of the police department, as directed by the mayor and city council who hired Stracek later the same year. But many officers in the department didn't like those changes and their resulting complaints were outlined in the investigative report supplied to the Pine Journal by Stracek earlier this month.

In June, Stracek agreed to retire, receiving six months pay, following his exoneration of any wrongdoing by both the investigation and unanimous vote of the Cloquet City Council, which accepted the report's conclusions.

In an effort to more deeply understand the turmoil and the police department's response to it, the Pine Journal submitted questions to five members of the Cloquet Police Department — interim Police Chief Jeff Palmer, both commanders and two detectives. Only three responses were received and were generally vague, with the sources worried about "data privacy laws," and noted such as the primary reason for not communicating in more depth with the newspaper.

"The men and women of the Cloquet Police Department have a very difficult job and continue to be some of the best in their field," Palmer wrote, declining to answer any questions about past police department issues. "I am proud to be part of their team and a member of this community."

In addition to the reform that was being ushered in by Stracek, an additional stressor weighed on the department. According to the investigative report, Officer Mark Laine's off-duty fatal drunk-driving crash in 2015 — the longtime police officer died at the scene while also striking and killing a nurse from Community Memorial Hospital — was a major turning point in terms of negative staff morale, said investigator Michelle Soldo, an attorney with her own consulting firm who was hired by the city council to conduct the investigation of Stracek and the police union complaint.

"The accident occurred after [Laine's name was redacted, but the Pine Journal previously reported on the crash] had been out drinking with other PD employees, a long-time practice," Soldo wrote in her investigative summary. "By all accounts, during that very difficult time, the Chief was a strong, supportive and effective leader. He took calls, offered and granted time off as needed and grieved with others."

However, in the 17 months that followed, Stracek began to make other organizational and operational changes required to implement the recommendations from the 2014 study. Some of the changes were not well received and "positive internal dynamics began to erode," Soldo wrote.

'Low morale'

Although the original police union complaint against Stracek alleged unfit leadership leading to poor morale and concerns regarding public and officer safety in a vaguely written statement, Soldo looked into numerous different allegations raised during 37 hours of interviews with 23 Cloquet Police Department employees.

According to the investigation summary, the police complaint claimed Stracek fostered "a law enforcement environment dominated by fear" and "low morale," which they said created deeper officer and public safety issues.

In addition to the aforementioned reforms, the allegations of wrongdoing against Stracek included a litany of other accusations: he was too critical of officers' report-writing and shoplifting arrests; the chief investigated two department employees for possible wrongdoing; he used email too much and not enough face-to-face communication; he was slow to praise and quick to criticize; he ignored requests for more meetings with sergeants and blamed them for low morale.

Additionally, the officers told the investigator Stracek failed to address additional firearm and use-of-force training desired or needed by some officers, ignored equipment maintenance and repair items written on a whiteboard, and failed to add a long gun in one squad car and a shotgun in another.

Officers also complained when the chief moved both practice and emergency duty ammunition from a gun closet to a secure room.

Officers said he wouldn't authorize overtime so that officers could work special events, requiring on-duty officers to respond to calls and provide special event coverage.

Officers complained that Stracek required officers patrol within designated sectors and do more clerical report work, taking time away from their patrol activity.

They said Stracek was not providing new uniforms quickly enough, took away a dry cleaning option and chose a uniform brand that was uncomfortable. They said he didn't allow sergeants to independently evaluate their officers without commander input, and spent money to establish a bike patrol program the officers said wasn't utilized.

They complained that compensation time was entered late and often inaccurately calculated.

Finally, the officers told the investigator that Stracek did not treat officers equally, complaining that pay was not equal for past experience or training in some cases, some officers trained more than others and "untrained officers" were allowed to conduct background investigations.

For his part, Stracek would not further comment on the allegations, telling the Pine Journal he preferred to let the investigative report and its exoneration of his alleged wrongdoing tell the story.

Less controversial changes outlined in the investigative summary included Stracek promoting two people to commander positions to establish a more effective chain of command, and moving one detective — who was a K-9 handler — to the patrol division to work as a supervisor as recommended in the study for better use of the K-9.

Well-liked early on

Saldo also noted in her investigative summary that the dissent that marked the end of Stracek's tenure was not apparent early on, although some officers felt an internal candidate should have been selected.

The Soldo summary revealed that Stracek was well-liked by all during his first year, when he spent time observing and listening to staff. During that time, he also implemented a DuPont shift schedule in January 2015 at the request of staff, which meant officers and staff worked approximately 15 shifts a month, had a stretch of seven consecutive days off every month and banked an additional 104 hours of compensation time annually. He implemented the schedule on the condition that it did not lead to increased sick leave use resulting in overtime to fill those shifts, a historic problem within the department identified by the 2014 study.

But it wasn't long before Stracek oversaw a change from the DuPont schedule after he found a pattern of sick leave use at the beginning and end of scheduled seven days off.

Soldo said additional events were key in the decline of morale, including the investigation (and exoneration) of a sergeant and the chief's decision to reassign back to patrol an officer who had been temporarily moved to the Investigative Division.

Another blow to morale came when Officer Scott Beckman — although his name was redacted on the report, the Pine Journal was able to confirm his identity from his disciplinary records and online city council meeting notes — was accused and found guilty by an outside investigator of lying to his commander regarding completion of required reports in February 2016 and falsifying an application for a search warrant in March 2016.

In consultation with the city's legal counsel, Stracek recommended to the council that Beckman's employment be terminated that summer. According to the minutes of an Aug. 24, 2016 special meeting, Mayor Hallback moved and Councilor Steve Langley seconded a motion not to dismiss Beckman. The motion failed with councilors Dave Bjerkness, Kerry Kolodge, and Lara Wilkinson voting no. Because the vote tied — Councilor Maki was absent — the matter was remanded back to Stracek for consideration of less severe discipline. Ultimately, after grieving through the union, Beckman received a 10-day suspension for falsification of the search warrant and one day for lying to a supervisor. He was also issued a performance improvement plan that required he wear a microphone while working, to mitigate legal issues arising from falsifying the search warrant because it impacted his ability to testify credibly under oath. Such a violation is called a Brady/Giglio violation, and state and federal prosecutors are obligated to disclose the officer's discipline for untruthful behavior to the defense in criminal cases involving the officer.

Moving forward

Soldo agreed with the police union complaint that police department employee morale was low. She attributed it in part to the need for better communication at all levels, from the officers up to the police chief.

Regarding the "very serious allegations of officer fear and officer and public safety issues," Soldo wrote that widespread "fear of discipline persists," notwithstanding the fact that "those who have made inadvertent or good faith mistakes were coached, redirected or trained and not disciplined" (emphasis Soldo's).

Regarding firearms training, Soldo noted that "it is undisputed that all PD employees have successfully completed annual firearms qualifications and use of force training." No one indicated they were not proficient during the interviews and Soldo wrote that it would be a professional responsibility issue if an officer were not proficient but refused to seek additional training because they weren't being paid overtime.

Soldo wrote that the investigation confirmed internal communication challenges, and that the responsibility for those rests with the chief, commanders and sergeants.

She noted additional reasons for low morale.

"Diminished morale is also attributable to a long-standing (dating back to the prior chief) and continuing pattern of sergeant and officer resistance to change, including organizational and operational changes Chief Stracek implemented, which were consistent with the direction of the City Council," she wrote. "The behind-the-scenes complaining and undermining behavior of some PD employees adversely impacts the work environment of others."

Soldo's report also said that one of the commanders knew of the planned union meeting and vote of no confidence a month in advance and didn't share the information with the police chief, adding that some sergeants reported during the investigation that the chief could have prevented the vote had he simply met with the sergeants and offered them an opportunity to discuss their concerns with him.

In response to a question from the Pine Journal, Patrol Commander Carey Ferrell said the report was incorrect.

"I am responding to this question not as the Patrol Commander or as a representative of the city but that of a private person responding to the question," Ferrell wrote, offering his own explanation when and how he learned of the union meeting and when he notified Chief Stracek.

According to Ferrell, he learned of the meeting on March 7, after emailing officers about a training in Duluth set for March 15. Four responded, but one later said they couldn't attend because of a scheduled union meeting that day. The next morning, he checked the message board in the squad room and found the posting about the union meeting and informed Chief Stracek that at least two of the four would not attend the training because of the union meeting.

At lunch that day or the next, Ferrell said Stracek asked him if he knew the reason for the meeting.

"My response was, 'No I can only speculate it's one of two things.'" Ferrell wrote. "I said the only reason to have a union meeting asking everyone to attend is to discuss contract negotiations and the contract is up the end of this year, or it is to take a vote of no confidence. I based this speculation on having worked at the Cloquet Police Department for nearly 24 years during which I was a union steward for at least 10 years plus. I also participated in most contract negotiations my first 18 years. During that time, we never had union meetings for any other reason."

Ferrell reiterated that he told the chief of the meeting the day after he discovered it was happening, although he didn't know why it was being held at that time.

"I believe it is part of any officer's job to speak with their superior officers about anything they may have heard good or bad, that is told to them by others or observed by others," he said. "It is that superior officer's choice to do what they want with the information provided to them.

"In my 24 years serving the public as a police officer for the City of Cloquet I've dedicated myself to the department and the citizens," he added.

In response to a question about residents feeling concerned about the police department and was written in the investigative report regarding moral, fear of discipline, poor communication at all levels and more, Ferrell said the department continues to operate efficiently and effectively in light of what's been happening.

Detective/Sgt. Scott Holman agreed.

"The Cloquet Police Department is going to move forward continuing to provide excellent service to the residents of Cloquet," Holman wrote.

The city has yet to initiate the process of looking for a new police chief. Mayor Dave Hallback said they are waiting to hire a new city administrator before doing that. In the meantime, Jeff Palmer continues to serve as the interim police chief.