Updated: Friday, April 19 | Posted: Wednesday, April 17
A Minnesota arbitrator ruled that a University of Minnesota police officer fired in 2018 should get his job back.
Officer Phillip Lombardi, 51, was fired after he pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor assault which occurred while he was off duty and not in uniform. According to court records, Lombardi got into a shouting match in St. Paul with a pedestrian who kicked his car. Lombardi got out of his car and confronted the woman on the sidewalk.
The woman said Lombardi grabbed her by the neck.
Lombardi admitted that he got "into the woman's personal space" and frightened her. But didn't admit to touching her. The fifth-degree assault plea was later dismissed after Lombardi met the conditions of his probation.
Arbitrator Phillip Finkelstein called the case one of the most challenging he'd seen during his career. He agreed that Lombardi's conduct warranted serious discipline. However, he said during Lombardi's 20 years in law enforcement, he'd received numerous awards and commendations but no prior discipline.
Finkelstein reduced Lombardi's termination to a 10-month suspension with no back pay. He said the incident which led to the officer's firing was a tragedy for all involved.
"But it was also a tragedy to [Lombardi] who has been unable to work as a police officer for over two years," wrote Finkelstein in his determination. "However, [he] should be mindful that most of this tragedy was of his own making in determining his future actions."
Lombardi is one of several Minnesota law enforcement officers over the last few years to be fired and returned to work after arbitration. However, some legal experts say arbitrators usually support management decisions to fire officers. And often unions don't intervene in firings, said Minneapolis labor attorney Jim Michels.
"The union only challenges the termination about half the time," said Michels, who represents police officers, firefighters and other public employees across the state. "Because a lot of times the union will look at the case and say, 'yeah, we think this warrants termination.'"
A study of more than 2,000 arbitration awards in Minnesota involving a variety of public employees found that arbitrators most often sided with management. Though the research covered cases which occurred between 1982 and 2005, Michels said in his experience that ratio hasn't changed.
A University of Minnesota law student's study of police firings around the country between 2011 and 2015 found that in just over half of cases studied, employers' decisions to fire officers were upheld by arbitrators.
Finkelstein ordered the university to reinstate Lombardi two weeks after his ruling was published, which was more than a month ago.
A statement from the University of Minnesota said Lombardi was reinstated to the position of police officer on April 1.
"The University of Minnesota respects the arbitrator's decision to reduce Ofc. Phillip Lombardi's termination from the University of Minnesota Police Department to a long-term suspension without pay. While acknowledging disciplinary action was valid, the arbitrator took into consideration Ofc. Lombardi's tenure and performance at UMPD. The University and UMPD has and will continue to hold its officers to a high standard of conduct."
Your support matters.
You make MPR News possible. Individual donations are behind the clarity in coverage from our reporters across the state, stories that connect us, and conversations that provide perspectives. Help ensure MPR remains a resource that brings Minnesotans together.