Protests coincide with city council meeting, “citizen input time”
Carrying signs emblazoned with slogans like “Justice for Erkenbrack and Watt” and “Revering Gone Rogue,” roughly 50 citizens of Crystal and nearby cities, many of whom represent Citizens United Against Police Brutality, held a rally before the Sept. 18 Crystal city council meeting to voice their support for Officers Alan Watt and Rob Erkenbrack.
Both officers, the ralliers allege, were punished for speaking out about the Crystal police department’s handling of a 2009 incident with the Metro Gang Strike Force and other alleged misdeeds conducted throughout the department and city hall, particularly by Chief Stephanie Revering and City Manager Anne Norris.
Both Watt and Erkenbrack were placed on administrative leave last spring, and Erkenbrack was recently fired.
“If these two men had done anything wrong, why would they be fighting so hard?” asked Erkenbrack’s niece Kari Miller, who wore a shirt with “call for backup” sporting both officers’ faces as she addressed the crowd through a megaphone.
Erkenbrack filed a grievance after his firing. His case has since moved into arbitration between the police officer’s union and the department.
Citizen’s United, Erkenbrack and Watt have filed complaints with the Minnesota Peace Officer Standards and Training board concerning the officer’s punishment and a series of complaints against current officers.
Members of the council conducted “Citizen Input Time” for half an hour between the rally and the beginning of the council meeting proper, during which group members voiced their concerns about the transparency – or lack thereof – with which the city has handled Watt and Erkenbrack’s individual situations.
Crystal resident Steve Johnson wondered why the city wasn’t making public the violations that earned Watt and Erkenbrack their punishments. City and police officials have cited data privacy laws when questioned on the topic in the past.
Revering cited those laws when questioned about the rally afterwards: “All I can say is there’s two sides to every story, and, unfortunately, we cannot tell our side due to the data privacy act.”
Before the regular council meeting began, council member Casey Peak said, “there are times when we’re blocked, and other times when we just can’t share that data. It’s a balancing act.”
Sheldon Winnig, who said the conflict between the city and the community group was “bizarre” and “turning into a soap opera” during the rally outside, addressed Crystal Mayor Jim Adams during the citizen input time.
“We’re a small suburb,” Winnig said, “we’re small potatoes in the grand scheme of things, so why is this going on?
“If these guys are guilty, take ‘em out behind the building and shoot ‘em. Otherwise, stop it,” he added before excusing himself from the meeting.
Winnig had also wondered why the two officers had been banned from Crystal city property, a claim that had circulated during the earlier rally.
Adams said he didn’t know who said the officers couldn’t be on city property. When asked later about the allegation, Revering again said she couldn’t comment on personnel matters.
“There are chances that some personnel info may never come out,” Adams added at the meeting.
In response to the criticisms presented during the input time, Adams reiterated statements from earlier meetings, telling the crowd, “we are well aware of your concerns. We’ve heard them over and over.”
At the close of the meeting, Adams said “the consensus in the council is to get to the bottom of this.”
Despite the seriousness of the discussion, demeanors remained calm throughout.
When Adams recounted the messages he had received threatening his family and himself, Miller took the opportunity to apologize on behalf of those who left the messages, saying they were “not acceptable.”
After the citizen input session, the council meeting proper began. At the outset of the “open forum” portion of the meeting, Mayor Adams made it clear that no further comments on the case of the two officers would be taken.
Unlike the Sept. 3 meeting, that news did not seem to upset those present.
The council eventually went to a closed meeting to discuss a personnel matter that was added to the end of agenda before the meeting began.
The closed portion of the meeting lasted nearly 90 minutes and the meeting adjourned shortly thereafter, but many of Watt and Erkenbrack’s supporters remained in the hallway throughout, chatting with one another and playing with a set of legos in the city hall hallway to pass the time.
Dave Bicking, a members of Communities United, said his group’s continued presence was a sign of support – that their concerns weren’t going to go away any time soon.
Adams explained in a phone interview that the city was working with two “timelines” concerning Watt and Erkenbrack.
The first concerns the arbitration process between Erkenbrack’s union lawyers and the department. In a phone interview on Sept. 19, Adams said, “I want to be perfectly clear that we are not getting involved in the union proceedings … we don’t belong in that particular piece of it.”
The second timeline concerns the standards and training board’s investigation into the officer’s complaints of retaliation. Adams said that investigation could be done by the end of the month, at which point the council might act, depending on the results.
“It’s not going to be overnight,” he cautioned, but added he imagines the council could act within a month of being informed of the board’s findings.