Video roils debate over Duluth cop's future
DULUTH — An arbitrator last week reinstated a Duluth police officer who was captured on video dragging a handcuffed man through the downtown skywalk system and ramming his head into a steel door.
The Duluth Police Department moved to fire the officer of nine years, Adam Huot, in wake of the May 20, 2017, incident, Police Chief Mike Tusken said at a news conference Friday.
Body camera footage shows Huot dragging the reportedly intoxicated man nearly 100 feet through the skywalk between Lake Avenue and First Avenue West.
Huot and two other officers were on the scene attempting to remove two men from the premises after they were reported to be lying in a stairwell late that night.
The video shows one of the men, Brandon Houle, asking to be arrested and then dropping to the ground as he is being led from the scene in handcuffs, telling the 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.
"The passive resistance offered by the citizen in this incident did not justify this level of use of force," Tusken said at the news conference. "Several alternative options were available to officer Huot to facilitate the removal of the citizen, all of which would have provided more dignity and respect.
"Officer Huot's actions were contrary to his training and department policy, and officer Huot violated our mission, vision and core beliefs by betraying public trust and our social contract with our community."
Houle suffered a bump to the head but did not require any stitches or show any other signs of a serious head injury, Tusken said. The use-of-force incident was reported to a supervisor by another officer on the call, and Huot was placed on leave the next day.
The Duluth Police Union last June filed a grievance after the department terminated Huot, who had previously been suspended for a use-of-force incident and was working under a disciplinary plan.
In a 53-page decision last week, arbitrator Mario Bognanno called Huot's actions "unreasonable" but said there was not sufficient cause for termination. He said Huot should be reinstated to his position, without the benefit of back pay for the year he has been on unpaid leave.
Investigator Tom Maida, the union president, acknowledged that Huot's actions "were inappropriate and reflected poorly on all police officers." But he argued that the incident did not warrant termination.
"Officer Huot has accepted responsibility for his actions and is eager to return to the department," Maida said in a statement. "Officer Huot extends his apologies to Mr. Houle, his fellow officers, and to the citizens of our community."
City officials, though, vowed to appeal the arbitration decision to district court.
"We will continue to do everything in our power to sustain this termination by pursuing all appropriate legal remedies in response to the arbitrator's ruling," Mayor Emily Larson said.
Other officers 'shocked'
Houle, who is Native American, was 30 years old and homeless at the time of the incident. He was well known to officers, one of whom testified that he is "excitable" and "kind of loud" but not a safety risk.
A call was placed to police that evening regarding Houle and another man, who were hanging around the Tech Village parking ramp, from which they were banned, according to police.
Huot and fellow officers initially advised the men to leave, and they agreed. But the officers were called back a short time later and Houle was more vocal. After being advised that they would be mailed citations, Houle demanded to be placed under arrest.
The officers handcuffed Houle, intending to bring him to detox. Huot and officer Beau Hughes, who was then completing his field training, began walking Houle toward an elevator when he dropped to the ground.
The audio captures Hughes casually asking "really?" before Huot grabs Houle by the handcuffs. Hughes appears to try to assist Huot in pulling the man back to his feet, but Huot instead quickly drags him down the hallway.
As Houle's head slams into the door, officer Morgan Cekalla, a six-year veteran who was overseeing Hughes' field training, can be heard shouting out "Adam!" in apparent surprise over his colleague's actions.
Cekalla and Hughes reported that Huot did not apologize to Houle or check on his condition. Later, he reached out to his fellow officers and said he wanted to make sure they were "on the same page about what happened."
Cekalla said he was left "shell shocked" by the situation. He contacted the shift commander, Lt. Tim Jazdzewski, to report the incident.
Jazdzewski reviewed the body camera footage, which he said left him "at wit's end." He brought the incident to the attention of Tusken and Deputy Chief Nick Lukovsky.
Huot had prior discipline
Tusken said Huot's actions were not consistent with the department's policies for passive resistance.
Houle should have been given an opportunity to get up voluntarily, he said. Or, in the alternative, the three officers could have together brought him to his feet or called for an ambulance crew to assist in transportation.
"The Duluth Police Department values and respects the sanctity of every life and identifies our roles as a lifesaving organization," Tusken said. "We have an immense responsibility that comes with authority to use reasonable force when overcoming resistance and protecting the public. It is the Duluth Police Department's expectation that officers will make tactically sound, reasonable use-of-force decisions which demonstrate our value of every life."
Tusken said Huot had more training in de-escalation and communication strategies than most officers on the street due to past concerns about his on-the-job behavior.
Huot, 35, was previously suspended one day for repeatedly punching a man in the head during an incident — force that was determined to be excessive. Since his hiring in 2008, he was subject to 12 complaints, half of which resulted in some counseling or training.
But Maida noted that Huot is also a decorated officer who has received praise from his supervisors and from members of the public. Huot's personnel record includes four commendations, numerous letters of appreciation and a departmental award for saving the life of suicidal person.
Bognanno, the arbitrator, was highly critical of Huot's actions but said the department failed to show "just cause" for the officer's termination. He said the record showed a fairly professional policing career marked by occasional poor judgment.
"Huot and his career as a police officer is at a crossroad: Either he takes control of his penchant for misusing vocal and physical force or he will be fired," Bognanno wrote. "A third use-of-force violation would be his last."
Maida argued that Huot has already received substantial punishment through Bognanno's decision denying him pay for the year that he has been on leave.
"The city of Duluth and the Duluth Police Union are bound by contract to comply with the binding decision of the arbitrator," Maida said. "It is the union's hope and expectation that the city will comply with this obligation and return officer Huot to duty."
Native American community reacts
For some, the incident brought back memories of September 2012.
That was when Duluth police officer Richard Jouppi was caught on camera repeatedly striking an intoxicated Native American man in a wheelchair at the detox facility.
In that case, which occurred when Tusken was a deputy chief, officials also moved quickly to fire Jouppi. The union contested the decision and the dispute dragged on for nearly two years — well after a jury acquitted the officer of assault charges.
The union in June 2014 ultimately dropped its grievance, allowing Jouppi's termination to become final.
Unlike that case, Tusken said he did not refer Huot's actions for criminal investigation.
"When I looked at the video, I wanted to ensure that officer Huot did not work here and was no longer employed by the city of Duluth," he said. "So I took the path that was going to accomplish that."
Babette Sandman, who is active in Native American community causes, said she was satisfied with how the department has handled Huot's case.
"It could've been swept under the rug, but it wasn't," she said. "I think we're fortunate to be in the city of Duluth under Chief Tusken. He has a standard to treat us all with dignity — no matter if we're drunk, violent, pushing buttons."
Shawn Carr, another community activist, agreed.
"I'm happy with the way it's being handled," he said. "I see a lot of things in other parts of the country where these things don't turn out so well."