Firing upheld for St. Paul police officer who mocked assault victim

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A St. Paul police officer who stood by and watched an assault outside an Eastside bar will not get his job back.

Nathan Smith and four other officers were fired last summer after Police Chief Todd Axtell said they failed to intervene during a brawl in 2018. The police union immediately criticized the terminations and filed grievances.

Earlier this month, an arbitrator upheld Smith's firing, ruling that "Officer Smith and his colleagues laughed and joked in response to assaults. They mocked individuals who were injured and bleeding."

According to the department's internal investigation, Smith also tried to cover up his misconduct and was accused of making false statements to internal affairs. The ruling points to these facts as basis for upholding Smith's firing.

Source: Termination of 5 St. Paul police officers stems from assault at Eastside Checkerboard Pizza last June

Axtell called the ruling "a validation" of his decision to terminate Smith.

"I made my thoughts clear and took decisive action on this matter in June. Officers are expected to protect the public and tell the truth," Axtell said in a statement. "Failing to live up to these standards negatively affects everyone who wears the badge and erodes community trust."

Smith responded to an incident in June 2018 outside Checkers Bar during which the owner — a former St. Paul police officer — was accused of striking a customer in the head with a baton while trying to break up a crowd. Tou Cha eventually pleaded guilty to third-degree aggravated assault. The officers who responded that night were investigated by internal affairs after a family member of the victim filed a formal complaint.

Smith failed to intervene in the initial assault, did not help a woman who was pleading for help and tried to cover up his misconduct by turning his body camera away from the scene, according to the internal investigation.

The ruling explained Smith encouraged a junior officer to also turn away, gesturing to him to "join his fellow officers in facing away from the action."

"It's such a hard situation," said Mylan Masson, a retired officer who now trains law enforcement. "I really feel bad for that junior officer. You're ordered to do something by another officer and now you have to decide should I do what's right or follow this?"

Smith was also accused of making false statements.

After reviewing the grievance filing, Masson said those are the most alarming points in the arbitration ruling.

"The biggest thing we teach officers all the time: don't lie," she said. "It's going to get you into worse trouble."

Paul Kuntz, president of the St. Paul Police Federation, said the union is "obviously extremely disappointed in the arbitrator's decision."

The other four officers who were terminated are still appealing their terminations.

Masson said it's hard to predict what will happen to the remaining four officers, even after this decision.

"Each individual officer's action will be taken individually," she said.