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Firing of Litchfield police officer upheld by arbitrator

LITCHFIELD — The termination of a former Litchfield police sergeant — who was charged last year with DWI while off-duty — has been upheld.

In the binding arbitration decision published Sept. 5, it was determined the Litchfield Police Department was justified in firing Bryant Blackwell, a veteran peace officer who had at one time been a finalist for the job of Litchfield police chief.

Blackwell was fired from his job as police sergeant in January as a result of the 2016 DWI arrest.

The Minnesota Teamsters Public and Law Enforcement Employees Union Local 320 filed a grievance on Blackwell's behalf and the case went to arbitration.

Following a hearing where both sides were presented, the arbitrator, Carol Tidwell, denied the grievance.

Tidwell wrote that the city had "just cause" to terminate Blackwell and that the city did not violate the collective bargaining agreement.

Blackwell, who began working for the Litchfield police department in 1993, was placed on leave Oct. 27, 2016 after being arrested for DWI.

According to a summary of the case in the arbiter's decision, Blackwell was pulled over after a Meeker County Sheriff's deputy saw Blackwell driving a personal vehicle over the centerline and fog line.

Despite initially telling the deputy he had not consumed any alcohol and later saying he'd only had a couple beers, a blood test indicated Blackwell had a blood alcohol level of 0.186 percent, which is over twice the legal limit.

According to the arbiter's report, Police Chief Patrick Fank testified Blackwell was fired because he broke the law, needed a valid driver's license to be a cop and could no longer be effective as an officer because his conduct would negatively affect his relationships with co-workers and the community.

The union argued Blackwell made a mistake but said he is "contrite and amenable to corrective action" and asked he be reinstated to his job.

Tidwell said Blackwell has shown little remorse for the recent DWI, has past issues with behavior and alcohol that resulted in a written reprimand and has not asked for help or initiated treatment for over-consumption of alcohol.

In the lengthy report, Tidwell wrote that as a sergeant, Blackwell was well aware of driving laws and rules of conduct required of a police officer, including that officers "conduct themselves in a manner consistent with the integrity and trustworthiness expected of them by the public."

The city said there were no desk jobs available for Blackwell in the small department and even though his driver's license was conditionally reinstated it required the use of an ignition lock device on his vehicle.

The union argued such a device could be installed in a squad car so Blackwell could remain on the job.

The city countered that doing so would be an expense to taxpayers and make it difficult for the squad car to be used by other officers or to be used in an emergency.

As an option to the ignition lock, the union said the city could put "whiskey license plates" on an unmarked police car for Blackwell to use.

Tidwell wrote that option was "at best preposterous," adding that it would also be expensive for the city to dedicate a vehicle just for Blackwell.

In a small community like Litchfield, she wrote, it would now be difficult for Blackwell to do his job and retain the trust of the public.

After considering a number of potential options to reinstate Blackwell to the job, Tidwell said she determined that the punishment of termination "fit the crime" and therefore upheld the city's decision.

Carolyn Lange

A reporter for 35 years, Carolyn Lange covers regional news with the West Central Tribune.

(320) 894-9750
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