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Pequot police officer's suspension goes to arbitration

An issue with Pequot Lakes Police Officer Josh Gartner resulted in a state arbitrator ruling last month that 10 days of a 15-day suspension were warranted. Gartner will be paid for the other five days.

The state arbitration between the officers’ union and the city of Pequot Lakes was held to determine whether the city had just cause to place Gartner on a 15-day suspension last January.

This came after several complaints against Gartner were referred to the Cass County Sheriff’s Department for an investigation, and after Pequot Lakes Police Chief Eric Klang conducted an internal investigation and determined a 15-day suspension was warranted effective Jan. 17, 2013.

Jay Fogelberg was the state arbitrator who handled the case. Arbitration results are posted on the Minnesota Bureau of Mediation Services website.

The arbitration report states, “The grievant (Gartner) has constructed a personnel file that is at once favorable and troubling. His work history contains a number of commendations and positive performance reviews for his police work, while at the same time he has been the recipient of written reprimands, suspensions and placement on two separate performance improvement plans.”

Three complaints were made against Gartner that the Pequot Lakes Police Department said warranted suspension; the arbitrator decided two of the three should be upheld as reasons for suspension.

The first complaint against Gartner, filed by a citizen, involved an incident in which Gartner turned off the recording equipment in his squad car after citing an ex-girlfriend for underage drinking.

Complaints against Gartner, 34, say he had a sexual relationship with an 18-year-old and, after the relationship ended, he pulled her over April 22, 2012, and ticketed her for underage consumption and driving after drinking. Gartner placed the woman in the back seat of his squad car but paused the in-squad video and audio prior to the conclusion of the stop.

The union asserts that the traffic stop was completely legal. Documents say the woman was stopped because of an object hanging from her rearview mirror, which is a ticketable offense.

The union also states that the only reason Gartner turned off the recording equipment was because the conversation had nothing to do with the traffic stop.

The police department’s policy states, “when in doubt, tape it.” The city stated that stopping the recording equipment interfered with both criminal and department investigations that were subsequently conducted.

The arbitrator concluded there is “ample evidence that she (Gartner’s ex-girlfriend) had been known to have consumed alcoholic beverages at his (Gartner’s) residence.”

Claims were also made accusing Gartner of serving the woman alcohol and letting her drive home from his house.

Gartner and the union deny those claims, saying he never served her alcohol nor has he allowed her to drive a car from his home after consuming alcohol.

The arbitrator determined that stopping the recording equipment was “self-serving more than anything else, in order to protect himself,” and upheld the complaint as justification for discipline.

The city also states Gartner had taken the woman with him for several ride-alongs while on patrol without filling out the department’s necessary paperwork.

The arbitrator agreed this was not in keeping with department policy.

The second complaint against Gartner came from citizens who claimed he showed preferential treatment to a friend, who called asking that Gartner go to Pestello’s on Sept. 10, 2012, to respond to a disturbance between Gartner’s friend and another couple. Gartner performed a walk-through of the bar but didn’t file a call for service with the department, which in the city’s view gave the appearance of favoritism toward a personal friend.

The arbitrator rejected this complaint as justification for the discipline imposed because the complaint wasn’t sustained by the Pequot Lakes Police Department.

Arbitration documents state that the chief’s initial review of that complaint did not establish wrongdoing on Gartner’s part, so to use the allegation as basis for action taken against Gartner “is both inconsistent and akin to double jeopardy.”

The third complaint against Gartner came from a citizen and regards comments Gartner posted to his Facebook page in November 2012.

The arbitrator stated what Gartner posted “is not only a violation of established policies for licensed police officers, it borders on the absurd.”

The arbitration documents go on to say, “it is a reasonable employment expectation of an experienced officer to know how inappropriate it is to make negative derogatory posts on Facebook concerning the president of the United States.”

Concluding the documents, the arbitrator stated that Gartner “continues to take little responsibility for his misconduct while exhibiting a supercilious attitude toward management.”

It goes on to say, “administration must take some responsibility for failing to follow their own published investigatory measures in connection with this matter.”

By phone Monday, Oct. 14, Klang said that his department is bound by the result of the arbitration.

“We take these types of incidents very seriously and this certainly is not consistent with the officers in this department,” Klang said. “I don’t like having to explain to the community, my family and my friends why this officer is a member of this department.

“This type of behavior damages our relationships and trust with the community, but it certainly does not reflect who we are, is not characteristic of the men and women who serve this department or this community,” he said.

Gartner was unable to be reached for comment.