Head of suspended drug training program has history of complaintsby Laura Yuen, Minnesota Public Radio
ST. PAUL, Minn. — A law-enforcement training program that is now under investigation is run by a Minnesota state trooper who's been under scrutiny in the past.
State officials suspended the program last month, amid dramatic allegations that officers taking the class were supplying young people with illegal drugs. The person at the helm of the program has been accused repeatedly of improper behavior.
The state Department of Public Safety temporarily shut down the Drug Recognition Evaluator program after protesters with the Occupy Minnesota movement claimed in a video that law enforcement officers picked them up in downtown Minneapolis and gave them marijuana to smoke.
When one of the trainees gave a similar account, state officials launched an official investigation of the program, which is now in the hands of the Hennepin County Attorney's Office.
The state coordinator of the program is Sgt. Rick Munoz, a 36-year-old officer in his first year leading the training. During his eight-year career, state police have received nine internal complaints against Munoz.
Trouble with the first drug recognition class, held in the spring, began May 2 after the video produced by activists and independent media went viral.
The program teaches sheriff's deputies, state troopers, and police officers from around the state to spot people who appear to be under the influence of drugs. The officers then conduct voluntary sobriety tests on the people they detain, to try to determine the kind of drugs that might have impaired them. But the program doesn't give the officers license to help their test subjects get high.
In early May, Munoz told his colleagues he knew of no officers in the program who were dealing drugs. Officers familiar with how the program works say that's entirely possible.
One day after the video surfaced, State Patrol spokesman Lt. Eric Roeske said Munoz felt confident that the trainees were not giving away drugs -- at least not under Munoz' watch.
"After speaking with those that were administrating the program, they confirmed that none of that occurred, to their knowledge," Roeske said on May 3. "And we've not been approached or provided any evidence by anyone that would indicate it was done."
But one week later, the message from Public Safety Department officials changed.
"We're going to get to the truth," department spokesman Bruce Gordon said at a press conference discussing a criminal investigation into the program. "Right, wrong or indifferent, we're going to know what happened. And we're going to make sure, going forward, the program is administered legally, ethically, and in a way the community is comfortable with."
Officials were forced to look into the story after an officer taking the class reported seeing a Hutchinson police officer give pot to a potential test subject.
Data obtained by MPR News from the Department of Public Safety confirm an ongoing investigation into a student in the class, State Trooper Nick Otterson. Officials placed Otterson on paid leave during the investigation.
The data showed no active investigations into program head Rick Munoz. But Munoz, who's been leading the program for less than a year, has been under scrutiny in the past for his behavior as a trooper.
Over an eight-year career with an organization that prides itself on professionalism, Munoz received nine internal complaints alleging problems with his conduct. He was found to be in violation of six of the nine complaints. Four of the six led to a single suspension of 10 days.
A Department of Public Safety spokesman said Munoz violated several rules relating to matters that range from constitutional rights issues to "belittling" others. The three remaining charges were not sustained.
The Department of Public Safety declined to release the full charging documents that would spell out the misconduct, on the grounds that the data are not public information.
Only one of three disciplinary letters offered details on why officials reprimanded Munoz. In 2009, Munoz failed to follow through on a disorderly conduct case, in which he investigated a male motorist accused of flipping his middle finger to a female driver for several miles on the road.
The St. Paul Park city attorney had to dismiss the case because he couldn't get any answers from Munoz, despite three requests to Munoz for information. The trooper's supervisors concluded Munoz was not courteous or respectful, and that his actions detracted from "the public's faith in the integrity of the criminal justice system," according to a letter written by Capt. Cheri Frandrup.
A ROCKY FIRST YEAR ON THE JOB
The relationship between Munoz and the State Patrol hit a rocky patch early on in his career. Records with the state Department of Human Rights show Munoz filed an employment discrimination charge with the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission in 2003, about a year and a half after he became a trooper.
Three former and current employees of the State Patrol say officials fired Munoz, whose employment record shows a gap of three years. The human rights database shows only that the officer's complaint had to do with "termination" and "harassment," and that the basis of the discrimination charge was his national origin.
The EEOC dismissed the charge three years later. It's not clear from publicly available information whether Munoz and his employer privately settled or why he got his job back.
A trooper from Oct. 2001 to Oct. 2002, Munoz was rehired in July 2005, according to his employment record. That amounts to an eight-year career with the State Patrol. Last year Munoz earned $88,233.
Munoz did not respond to a request for an interview. The State Patrol declined to talk about Munoz or the program while the DRE investigation continues.
In a written statement, Lt. Col. Matt Langer of the State Patrol said the agency will determine if any action is necessary after its investigation.
"The commissioner and the command staff of the Minnesota State Patrol expect that troopers strive for excellence in all that they do with respect and integrity," Langer wrote.
State Patrol officials have not said if they are looking into whether Munoz played a role in distributing any drugs. But the state investigation into the general claims that someone was doling out marijuana is advancing. This week, the Bureau of Criminal Apprehension turned over the case to prosecutors to review for possible charges.
A spokesman for the Hennepin County Attorney's office declined to say who or how many people the investigation is targeting, or when the charges would be expected.
PROGRAM VETERANS BEWILDERED
The allegations have shocked veteran leaders of the drug recognition program, including the prior head of the program, Lt. Don Marose of the State Patrol. Marose ran the class for nine years before he was promoted to a new position in September. He said Munoz was the only trooper who applied for the job.
Marose said he'll wait for the investigators to sort out what happened. But if a trainee gave drugs to the public, he's at a loss to explain why.
"That was my first question," Marose said. "I don't get it. It's not what police officers do. ... There's a lot of gray area in what we do, and this is not even a gray area."
Marose and two other veterans of the drug recognition program say they've never heard of officers supplying drugs, in Minnesota or in the 48 other states that offer the training.
In fact, some officers, including Sgt. Dan Day of the St. Paul police, consider it a point of pride to have received their certification as a drug-recognition expert.
"Aside from getting my badge pinned on me, getting married, and having my kids, one of my biggest days was getting certified," Day said.
Day used to teach the class in Minnesota. He's a big believer in the program, which started in the 1970s in Los Angeles as a way to remove dangerous drivers from the road. In Minnesota, the trainees come from sheriffs' and police departments from across the state, and start the program with two weeks of class instruction.
When Day was teaching, officers learned about seven categories of drugs, ranging from depressants to hallucinogens, he said. Then they'd go into the field and conduct 12 evaluations during the course of the program on test subjects suspected of being impaired in at least three of the seven drug categories.
When Day heard about claims that the trainees were supplying test subjects with drugs, he puzzled over why that would even be necessary.
"There's so many people who get impaired on their own, I don't even know why that would be a factor," he said.
Critics of the program say members of the public might not know they can refuse the tests when approached by a uniformed officer. But Day said from his experience, people understand it's voluntary.
"I just talk to people," he said. "That's what we do as police officers. We say, 'Hey, this is what I'm doing. I'm doing some training; it's called drug recognition, would you be willing to voluntarily help me to do this training?' And that's it. If someone says no, 'Thanks a lot. See you later.' If they say yes, 'OK.'"
Day said a common way to find potential test subjects was to reach out to local law enforcement agencies that routinely come across impaired individuals.
In fact, that's how the majority of programs find their test subjects, according to the International Association of Chiefs of Police. That's the group that coordinates the program on the national level. In many of those cases, people who have already been arrested by the partner agencies may undergo testing by program trainees.
The story told by Occupy Minnesota protesters is remarkably different. The test subjects were not in police custody. The activists say several times a day, the officers targeted Peavey Plaza in downtown Minneapolis, where demonstrators and homeless people regularly camp out. Two Occupy Minnesota activists told us that they were offered illegal drugs, but we weren't able to verify their claims.
Chuck Hayes, the regional operations coordinator with the International Police Chiefs Association, said he sees no problem with approaching people on the street, as long as the subjects aren't coerced.
He said the drug allegations in Minneapolis are concerning, if they're found to be true. He said they run counter to what he knows about the Minnesota program, which has been in place for more than 20 years.
"The Minnesota program has always been a very solid DRE program, solid by the fact that the training they do and the activities we see coming from that state are some of the top in the country," Hayes said. "So we've never had any concerns with how they run their program there."
Hayes said if the allegations that police officers gave drugs away is true, a national advisory committee will likely review the situation, and make sure it never happens again.
- Morning Edition, 06/22/2012, 7:20 a.m.