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St. Paul police chief fires five officers, but offers few details

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St. Paul Police Chief Todd Axtell
St. Paul Police Chief Todd Axtell speaks during a news conference on Thursday in St. Paul. The chief fired five officers for allegedly failing to intervene in an assault at a business.
John Autey | Pioneer Press via AP

Updated 8:30 p.m. | Posted 2:53 p.m.

St. Paul Police Chief Todd Axtell said Thursday he has fired five police officers for what he called a breach of their duty and the public's trust.

Axtell did not identify the officers or say what duties they had with the department at the time of the incident last summer.

The chief said a lengthy internal investigation, completed last week, found that the officers did not intervene when someone was assaulted last summer in their presence, although the officers themselves did not use force. 

Axtell said the person who committed the assault was not an officer, but would not say more. 

He also suggested that at least some members of the department subsequently were not truthful about the incident. 

A source tells MPR News that the assault happened about a year ago outside of a St. Paul bar. 

The alleged attacker was a former St. Paul officer who resigned from the force in 2005 after he let someone borrow his service weapon. The gun was used to shoot at a restaurant and a home. The former officer, Tou Mo Cha, pleaded guilty to a felony charge of making terroristic threats in that case. 

More recently Cha, 50, was charged with second- and third-degree assault in an incident that happened outside his bar and restaurant, Eastside Checkerboard Pizza on Arcade Street. 

In a criminal complaint, Ramsey County prosecutors allege Cha hit a "defenseless" man with a baton at least twice last June 17 and pepper sprayed him. The man, identified only as SV, suffered a concussion and head lacerations that required two dozen staples to close. 

The complaint also says a video camera mounted in a squad car captured the incident and shows Cha moving away after he apparently notices police. Cha pleaded not guilty. 

He could not be reached for comment. 

In response to a reporter's question at the Thursday press conference, Axtell said there was video, but he did not say what it shows, or who recorded it. 

Christopher Wachtler, an attorney for the St. Paul Police Federation, says the union will challenge the firing of the five unnamed officers.

"We disagree with the decision we don't think these terminations will be upheld. We think the chief is just way off base on this," Wachtler said.

St. Paul Mayor Melvin Carter said he supports the police chief's decision "to enforce strong ethical standards in our police department."

"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," Carter said. 

The St. Paul police chief declined to answer repeated questions about the incident and the firings, citing state personnel law, but said the nature and details the firings would eventually become public.

In the meantime, Axtell apologized to the public for something that should not have happened. He also recognized the officers of the St. Paul Police Department saying he would not let the actions of a few "tarnish" the rest of the force.

"Our job now as a police department and my ongoing pledge to you, our community, is to move forward from this ugly day in our department's history and once again get back to making deposits into a fully funded bank of trust," Axtell said.