ST PAUL, Minn. — St. Paul Police Chief Todd Axtell says he has terminated five officers after they observed an assault and did not intervene.
Axtell called an unexpected news conference on Thursday to announce some "unfortunate news" about the department. He said that it was not a decision he took lightly and that there was a thorough investigation.
"I have learned of a violation of trust, deceit and significant policy violations," he told the crowd at the news conference on Thursday.
Axtell said that while the officers in question were responding to a call an individual assaulted others and his officers did not intervene. As a result, the chief said, the five were terminated on Thursday.
"Someone was assaulted in the presence of officers," Axtell said.
The chief told reporters he couldn't give more details on the case or the dismissals due to state law, but on Friday Twin Cities attorney Jack Rice confirmed that the firings were in connection with an incident that led to criminal charges against his client, former St. Paul Police officer Tou Cha. A proseuction witness list compiled for Cha's trial includes the names of all five fired officers.
A criminal complaint filed against the 51-year-old Cha charges him with three counts of assault that allegedly took place at Checker's Pizza, a business he owned, on June 17 of 2018. Prosecutors detail how St. Paul Police officers responded to reports of a fight at a family gathering at Checker's, dispersed the crowd and then parked their squad across the street with its lights off. The complaint says Tou Cha was involved in another fight that broke out, and alleges he was captured on squad car video beating a defenseless man down on all fours with a baton.
The victim later told police that Tou Cha first pepper sprayed him, then he was struck by the baton. The man was treated at the hospital for a concussion and two significant lacerations on his head that had to be closed by staples.
Prosecutors lay out the time frame making it clear the beating took place as officers sat across the street.
"Officers are expected to intervene when criminal acts occur in their presence," he said. "Officers are expected to protect the vulnerable. And officers are expected, I demand that officers tell the truth."
Axtell said the incident happened last year. He said their job now as a department is to move forward from this "ugly day."
The investigation was "lengthy and complicated," according to Axtell. "We have an obligation to get it right," he said.
A long-term internal affairs investigation was completed, and then there was a recommendation made by the Police-Civilian Internal Affairs Review Commission. Axtell said more details will come out at a later date.
"I fully support and appreciate Chief Axtell’s leadership and the work of our PCIARC to enforce strong ethical standards in our police department," St. Paul Mayor Melvin Carter said in a statement after the news conference. "While the vast majority of our officers meet and exceed these standards every day, the trust we place in them demands accountability for actions that fall below our high expectations.”
Chris Wachtler, the union attorney representing the five officers, said they will file a grievance and appeal the decision. The case could go to arbitration.
“Complete overreaching," Wachtler said. "There’s no way the facts of these cases warrant termination in any way.”
Wachtler said there is both squad video and body camera footage of the incident.
"They think it shows something that it doesn’t," Wachtler said.
The president of the St. Paul Police Federation, Paul Kuntz, called the chief's decision "absolutely outrageous."