Mpls. cop gets job back after being fired for violating use-of-force policy

Updated: 3:06 p.m. | Posted: 4 a.m.

A Minneapolis police officer who was fired for violating department policies on use of force is getting his job back.

Officer Blayne Lehner, an 18-year-veteran of the force, challenged his firing and took his grievance in front of a mediator. Earlier this month, the arbitrator of the dispute, Stephen F. Befort, reduced Lehner's punishment from termination to a 40-hour suspension without pay.

Befort also ordered the city to compensate Lehner for the time he was off the force.

The incident that led to Lehner's termination occurred in August of 2014. According to the arbitration proceedings, Lehner and his partner responded to a domestic disturbance call in an apartment building. There they found two women, who were apparently romantic partners, yelling at each other.

During the arbitration hearing, Lehner testified that one of the women was "out of control" and "intoxicated on a combination of alcohol and prescription medicine." And he testified that the woman was disobeying orders to stay away from her partner.

City officials say Lehner pushed the woman twice, which was not warranted because they contended she posed no threat to the officers or others. City officials said Lehner violated department policy by not immediately reporting that use of force and they alleged that Lehner violated the department's code of conduct by calling the woman the "c" word.

Minneapolis police chief Janee Harteau
Minneapolis police chief Janee Harteau
Brandt Williams | MPR News 2015 file

The apartment building manager saw video of the incident and later filed a complaint with the Office of Police Conduct Review, or OPCR, according to the arbitrator's ruling. The review panel, made up of two citizens and two police lieutenants, found merit in the complaint allegations.

The city placed Lehner on administrative leave in September of 2015. Lehner made his case against the allegations in front of a discipline panel made up of high ranking officers later that fall. Police chief Janee Harteau agreed with the panel's conclusion that Lehner be fired.

Harteau wrote in a January 2016 memo that officer Lehner's actions went against the department's core values, according to the arbitration ruling.

"Public trust and procedural justice is vital in our ability to effectively protect and serve, and as a result I have lost all confidence in Officer Lehner's ability to serve the citizens of Minneapolis due to his poor judgment and his lack of integrity," wrote Harteau.

Police union officials argued that Harteau's decision to fire Lehner was too harsh. Lehner's attorney Kevin Beck argued that Lehner's use of force was not excessive, according to the arbitration ruling.

After this story was initially published, Harteau sent the following statement: "I am disappointed in the arbitrator's decision. These rulings hinder my ability, as a Police Chief, to create an effective culture of accountability within the Department."

Police federation president Bob Kroll
Minneapolis Federation of Police president Bob Kroll
Regina McCombs | MPR News 2015 file

He also contended that Lehner had no duty to report the use of force because the pushing was not considered a takedown technique. The union also found no evidence to support a finding that Lehner called the woman by a vulgar name.

Police union president Lt. Bob Kroll said he's not sure when Lehner will be back on the force, but said he's looking forward to it.

"He's an excellent cop," said Kroll. "He's an extremely hard worker and he serves the city well."

Kroll estimates the city owes Lehner about $40,000. However, Kroll said that amount will be reduced by the amount of money Lehner earned working after he was fired. That's part of labor law, Kroll said, but he thinks that's unfair to Lehner.

"You're a guy that goes out and tries to do well and make good for his family and they want to penalize him for it," said Kroll. "I don't like that aspect of it, but that is the rule of law."

Kroll said it was also not fair for the chief to terminate Lehner for actions that he claims other officers have done without being fired. And he said he's noticed how officer complaints about discipline ebb and flow.

"When a chief is new, they want to make their own rules and they don't realize that past practice prevails so you tend to have a lot of grievances," said Kroll.

He said chiefs have to provide more notice to officers that things will be different under their watch.

"Yes, they can rightfully claim that there have been many other officers who've done this and not been fired," said Dave Bicking, a former board member of the now defunct Civilian Review Authority and a member of Communities United Against Police Brutality. "And that is the problem."

Bicking said he'd like to see more consistency in discipline for officers, but the punishments should be more strict. He points to statistics from the OPCR, which he believes show the civilian review system is broken.

Since the new civilian complaint system was implemented in 2012, more than 1,000 complaints have been filed. Harteau has issued 15 suspensions, 11 letters of reprimand, three terminations and one demotion during that time.

Lehner has also been the subject of dozens of civilian and internal affairs complaints.

City records show that since 2000, more than 30 complaint investigations have been opened against Lehner. The vast majority of investigations were closed with no discipline. One case from 2014 with the Office of Police Conduct Review is still open. Records show Lehner was suspended twice in 2013. However, the reasons for the discipline were not listed. Lehner was also issued two letters of reprimand in 2012.

In 2015, Lehner was sued by a man who claimed the officer kicked him in the face, breaking a few of his teeth and causing him to briefly lose consciousness. In a rare move, the city decided not to defend Lehner. However, the city later settled the case for $360,000.

To Bicking, the fact that an officer with Lehner's history can be reinstated on the force is a sign that the police union has too much power.

"I don't think there's any other union in Minneapolis — Minneapolis public employees — that would be able to get a person's job back after they cost the city hundreds and hundreds of thousands of dollars, for instance," said Bicking.

But fired officers don't always get their jobs back.

In 2013, Harteau fired officers Brian Thole and Shawn Powell after members of the Green Bay police department notified her about the officers' behavior while they were visiting the city on vacation.

Thole and Powell acted belligerently towards the officers and used racial slurs about some black men they confronted on the street, according to Green Bay police.

As military veterans, Thole and Powell were eligible for a veteran's preference hearing to challenge their terminations. During that hearing, their attorney Gregg Corwin argued that other officers had engaged in similar acts and were not fired. However, the three-member Civil Service panel agreed with Harteau's decision to fire the officers.