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Cloquet police chief placed on leave

Then-Duluth Police Lt. Steve Stracek holds an evidence bag containing a small package of heroin while talking about the growing problem of the drug in the region. He became Cloquet police chief later that year. (News Tribune file photo)

Cloquet Police Chief Steve Stracek was placed on paid administrative leave Thursday night during an emergency meeting of the Cloquet City Council, pending the results of an investigation.

The vote came after Mayor Dave Hallback and councilors closed the emergency meeting, citing state statute that allows closure for discussion "relating to allegations of law enforcement personnel misconduct."

Because the investigation is ongoing, City Administrator Brian Fritsinger said he could not share details of the complaint filed against Stracek, but noted that the city received the complaint Thursday afternoon.

However, the Pine Journal was able to learn that Teamsters General Local Union No. 346, which represents Cloquet police officers (but not administration), filed a complaint against Stracek. Teamsters Secretary Treasurer Rod Alstead confirmed Friday that a complaint had been filed, but said the person "involved with that is on vacation" and declined to comment on the content of the complaint.

Stracek, who was not present at Thursday's meeting, declined to comment on the situation to the Pine Journal.

Fritsinger said he didn't know how long the investigation of Stracek will take.

The vote to place Stracek on leave came after close to 50 minutes of discussion behind the closed glass doors of the City Council Chamber; Hallback — a former Cloquet police officer — could be seen gesturing frequently and raised his voice several times.

After the meeting was reopened, Ward 5 Councilor Steve Langley motioned to put Stracek on administrative leave. Ward 1 Councilor Jeff Rock eventually seconded the motion, after more than 10 seconds passed and the mayor again called for a second. The vote to suspend the police chief was 4-1, with Langley, Rock, Hallback and Ward 2 Councilor David Bjerkness voting in favor, and Ward 3 Councilor Roger Maki voting against. There was no discussion.

A second motion to appoint Police Sgt. Jeff Palmer as interim chief (provided he accepted) passed on a 3-2 vote, with Langley making the motion and Hallback seconding after another long silence. Langley, Hallback and Rock voted in favor, and Maki and Bjerkness voted against Palmer's interim appointment. Police commanders Carey Ferrell and Derek Randall, who are next in rank under the police chief, were not nominated for the interim chief position during the open part of the meeting.

Stracek was hired in August 2014, after Wade Lamirande retired as chief of police and the assistant chief, Terry Hill, also retired. Stracek's appointment was the result of a national search which included finalists from as far away as Florida and Arizona and, ironically, culminated in Cloquet's own backyard. Stracek, who lived in Esko, had spent his entire 21-year-career working with the Duluth Police Department. The vote to appoint Stracek was unanimous and then-Mayor Bruce Ahlgren said he "came out on top with flying colors."

In Duluth, Stracek was a patrol officer from 1993-1999, then an investigator with the former Minnesota Gang Strike Force, a sergeant assigned to the night shift and a patrol lieutenant assigned to 16-20 officers. Before coming to Cloquet, Stracek served as a lieutenant in Duluth's Organized Crime Bureau, acting as commander of the Lake Superior Drug and Violent Crime Task Force and also supervising the department's property and financial crimes unit.

Fritsinger, whose last day with the city was Friday, said after Thursday's meeting that he didn't remember going through a similar scenario in his 18 years with the city.

But it isn't the first time the city has taken action regarding possible police misconduct. The city council went into closed session on April 21, 2009, voting unanimously to terminate then-patrol officer Jeff Palmer — whom the council approved as interim chief Thursday — for having a sexual relationship with a witness in a case in which he was the lead investigator, according to news reports from the time.

Palmer grieved the decision through his union and an arbitrator reversed the firing, reinstating Palmer. The arbitrator determined that while city had just cause to discipline Palmer, firing him was "too extreme a remedy for the misconduct established."