The city of Duluth will appeal a decision to reinstate a police officer who was fired after he was captured on video dragging a handcuffed man through the downtown skywalk in 2017.
An arbitrator gave officer Adam Huot his job back, with a lengthy unpaid suspension, and a district court judge in December refused to overturn the award.
While a recent Minnesota Supreme Court case featuring similar issues was decided in favor of a Twin Cities police officer and his union, Duluth City Attorney Gunnar Johnson said he will continue to contest Huot's case at the state Court of Appeals.
"The city administration and our police administration feels very strongly that this type of behavior is not going to be tolerated in the city of Duluth," he said. "So we are going to do as much as we can to make sure this officer never patrols the streets of Duluth again."
Sgt. Ryan Morris, president of the Duluth Police Union, said the city should drop the legal battle. He said Huot made a mistake, which he has apologized for, and has already paid an "excessive" penalty for his actions.
"It's disappointing and unfortunate," Morris said. "We understand their feelings, but we have an officer that should be back to work or getting paid. It's very clear that we've basically had three different rulings affirming our position."
Nearly two years into dispute
Huot was one of three officers called to remove two men from a building on May 20, 2017. Body camera footage shows one man, 30-year-old Brandon Houle, dropping to the ground and telling officers, "I ain't gonna make it easy for you guys."
Within seconds, without consulting his fellow officers, Huot is seen grabbing Houle by the chain on his handcuffs and forcibly dragging him down the hallway. Houle's head narrowly misses one post before striking the door with a loud thud. Houle, who is Native American and was homeless at the time, suffered a bump on the head but was not otherwise injured.
The video does not show Huot checking on Houle or inquiring about his condition. He also did not report the use-of-force incident to his supervisors. His fellow officers, who said they were left "shocked" by Huot's actions, did so later in the same shift.
According to arbitration and court documents, Huot was the subject of 12 complaints during his time as an officer - six of which were substantiated. Chief Mike Tusken testified that no other officer in his 155-member department necessitated as much oversight, coaching, training and discipline as Huot.
After the union filed a grievance over Huot's firing, arbitrator Mario Bognanno gave him his job back. While calling the officer's actions "unreasonable" and noting his history of disciplinary action, the arbitrator said the department failed to show "just cause" for termination.
The city contested the award in State District Court. Judge Eric Hylden, while saying he "would have no difficulty condemning the excessive use of force," ruled that he did not have legal grounds to overturn the arbitrator.
Richfield decision watched
As the Duluth case was before the district court, both the city and union were keeping a close eye on a Minnesota Supreme Court case that figured to have major ramifications on police discipline and collective bargaining in the state.
In a back-and-forth employment dispute, the high court last month upheld an arbitrator's decision to give a Richfield officer his job back after he was fired for failing to report a use-of-force incident.
Officer Nate Kinsey was seen slapping a 19-year-old Somali man in the back of the head, twice shoving him and using profanity after issuing a careless-driving citation. Bystander video circulated on social media, and Kinsey was fired by his department after an internal investigation.
But an arbitrator reinstated the officer, finding that Kinsey did not use "excessive or unreasonable force." The arbitrator said city policy on reporting force was not clear and that Kinsey's actions were not motivated by racial bias. While determining his use of profanity violated department policy, the arbitrator said it did not warrant disciplinary action.
A district judge agreed, but the Court of Appeals overturned the ruling, saying reinstatement interfered with public policy "in favor of police officers demonstrating self-regulation by being transparent and properly reporting their use of force."
The Supreme Court disagreed, once again reinstating the officer.
"No doubt many observers would find Kinsey's actions disturbing," Justice Anne McKeig wrote in a 12-page opinion. "But state statute requires arbitration, and the city's contract with the union gives the arbitrator the authority to decide what constitutes just cause for termination."
Ramifications for Duluth
The high court decision was not what Duluth was hoping to see, Johnson said, acknowledging it makes the city's path "more difficult."
But he said the facts of the two cases have some critical differences.
"We believe that the Huot case is a more compelling case than the Richfield case," Johnson said. "In our case we have a situation where the arbitrator did find that the officer violated the use-of-force policy. The arbitrator did find that he believes the officer will, in fact, violate again. We have some very compelling video showing the incident, and it turns your stomach."
Morris, however, said the Supreme Court ruling affirms the role of arbitration in employment disputes covered by collective-bargaining agreements. He said the union is prepared to continue its defense on appeal but called on the city to "be good stewards of taxpayer money" and end the litigation.
"At a certain point, nothing is going to change here," Morris said. "There are decisions they're going to have to make on whether they bring him back or what they're going to do. That's the part that's disappointing to me. It's clearly a no-win situation to continue to go forward with this."
Huot, who has an annual salary of $73,522, remains on unpaid leave as litigation continues. When Bognanno ordered him reinstated in June, he ruled the officer would not be entitled to collect back pay for the 13-month period that had elapsed since the incident.
Both Johnson and Morris acknowledged the possibility of some voluntary severance agreement, but both sides appeared braced to continue litigation in the foreseeable future.
The city has yet to officially file its appeal, pending formal entry of judgment from the district court. Once that occurs, it will likely be several months before a three-judge panel hears the case.