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Rochester reaches $1 million settlement with former police lieutenant

The city has reached a $1 million settlement with a former police officer who came forward with claims of alleged bias within the Rochester Police Department.

The dispute between Elisa Umpierre and her former employer began in 2016 when she reported "suspected racial bias in a decision to deny a favorable assignment to another police officer," says a news release from Halunen Law, the Minneapolis-based firm representing Umpierre in the case.

Later that year, according to Halunen Law, Rochester Police Chief Roger Peterson filed an internal complaint against Umpierre, allegedly based on social media posts Umpierre had published.

In one post, Umpierre criticized excessive force by police officers in a case involving a minority suspect. "None of this is going to change AT ALL until white cops finally say it needs to change," she wrote, according to a report by the Post-Bulletin. "How (expletive) up is that???!!!" In another post, she expressed her support for those protesting the Dakota Access Pipeline.

The department put her on administrative leave and hired an external investigator. A few months into the investigation, Umpierre filed a counter complaint with the Minnesota Department of Human Rights alleging charges of discrimination and retaliation against the Rochester Police Department.

Soon after, according to Halunen Law, Peterson recommended Umpierre's termination, citing her Facebook posts and her complaints about suspected bias in the employment decision. 

The complaint says: "While Lt. Umpierre certainly has the right to express her opinion regarding social and political concerns, that expression is not exempt from department rules and regulations. When the expression of personal opinions impairs the ability of an individual to effectively perform their job and/or undermines the mission of the police department, we are obligated to address those issues."

After discussing the issue with the city attorney in private, council members voted Monday night to approve the settlement.

In a written statement, Umpierre said she hopes her situation will lead to change within the department.

“Bias in police departments is a real problem," said Umpierre, who spent nearly 25 years as an officer. "I’ve seen it firsthand. Now more than ever, police departments need to reflect critically about who they hire, who they promote, and how they teach use-of-force training. I fear this will never happen without public pressure. I hope what happened to me is not the end of a conversation but the beginning of one, and that city officials and their constituents will discuss departmental bias and demand reform.”

This is not the first time an officer's social media activity has led to controversy. In 2016, Officer Ben Schlag was put on leave for posting racially offensive material to Facebook.

Following an independent investigation, Schlag was suspended for 10 days without pay. Unlike with Umpierre, Chief Peterson came to Schlag's defense, arguing he deserved a second chance.

"I know many people believe Ben should be terminated as a result of this incident," Peterson wrote at the time. "I understand that and, to be frank, that would be the easy thing to do in this case. I don't, however, believe it would be the right thing to do."

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