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DL police chief won't face charges for ballpark incident

Detroit Lakes Police Chief Steven Todd.

No criminal charges will be filed against Detroit Lakes Police Chief Steven Todd for grabbing a 12-year-old boy by the neck at Washington Ballpark on June 20.

Todd mistakenly thought the boy was trying to steal his Trek mountain bike after it was knocked over on a grandstand ramp and the boy tries to pick it up again.

Todd, who was off duty and wearing a sports shirt, had arrived on bicycle to the ballpark to watch the baseball game between Detroit Lakes and Hawley.

The case was handled by the Stearns County Attorney's Office to avoid local conflict of interest. The decision not to file assault charges was announced Friday.

The investigation found that the version of events told by Todd and the 12-year-old largely agree, but that Todd's actions do not rise to the level of assault, according to a letter from Stearns County Attorney Janelle P. Kendall to BCA special agent Nicholas Riba.

The boy told a BCA investigator that the bike was knocked down as he and a girl passed each other on the narrow ramp:

"Because the bike was falling, (the 12-year-old) said he "grabbed it and then moved the thing to get it how it was, leaning to make it stay. It was kinda hard to make it stay ... and then right when I was about to let it go (Todd) came running down and he put his hand up like kinda near the front of my throat, near the Adam's apple. And then he told me 'why you stealing my bike, punk?' and I was trying to tell him I wasn't stealing it, I was just putting it back up." He was held by the throat for 4 or 5 seconds, the boy said.

For his part, Todd told the investigator he parked his bike with the handlebar hooked across the metal railing at the top of the grandstand ramp. Todd said he could see the bike from his seat in the grandstand, periodically looking over to ensure it was still there during the short time he had been watching the game.

When Todd saw that the bike was gone, he stood up and did not see anyone near where his bike had been. "Someone stole my bike," he said out loud, and "took off running, thinking I gotta get out there and try to catch 'em." Todd ran down the grandstand steps and sprinted towards the ramp. As he got down the grandstand, Todd reached out "to help myself spin around the corner fast" and "gashed up my arm" on a ramp post — this later caused bruising.

Todd said that after rounding the corner he saw a "person with my bike" who was "looking down" and "he had two hands on the handle bar grips" facing "up the ramp."

Todd took approximately "three or four big running steps" and when he got to the bike "I remember touching the bike" and "reached out" thinking "I gotta catch this guy."

Todd said: "Hey, are you trying to steal my bike?" and described "trying to grab him, and I got him on the neck." Todd told the investigator his intent was to catch the person, and that he had no thought about where he was grabbing him.

The boy said he was too shocked to speak, but other people were yelling at Todd that the boy was picking up the bike, not trying to steal it. After several seconds Todd realized his mistake, released the boy, and apologized repeatedly.

When he then saw the face of the boy, who is 5-foot-5 and weighs about 130 pounds, Todd told a BCA investigator that he thought "oh no, he's a kid." Todd estimated it was approximately 2-3 seconds before he let the boy go, after a bystander told him that the bike had fallen to the ground.

Todd then saw the boy standing with his head down with apparent tears in his eyes. Todd asked him "is that true?" and when he nodded his head "yes," Todd said that "my heart just sank." Todd stated he felt "awful" and apologized to the boy, who then left the area to walk to meet his parents.

Todd said he fixed his bike chain and apologized to the bystander who had told him the boy was picking up the bike. Todd then biked back to work to change clothes. The boy soon returned to the park with his parents. Other adults had gathered and discussed the incident. The boy and other family members then left to go to a softball game, at which point the boy's father called law enforcement.

A Detroit Lakes police officer responded, bringing Todd along, who wanted to speak with the boy's father to explain what had happened and apologize. The officer spoke with other individuals at the scene and then the boy's father, but only took a statement from one of the witnesses. The officer obtained four photos that show no visible marks on the boy's neck, although at least one witness told police she saw red marks immediately following the incident. Photos were taken at least an hour later.

One of the main disputes in the incident was where the chief grabbed the child. Todd originally stated it was by the back of the neck, while the child and at least two adult witnesses say it was by the front of the throat.

The incident was forwarded to the Becker County Sheriff's Office, which asked the BCA to investigate. Statements and diagrams were completed by the BCA.

The Stearns County Attorney's Office opted not to file charges, because, Kendall wrote: "Under Minnesota law, a person is authorized to use reasonable force to resist a theft of property they reasonably believe is occurring. Todd has not asserted any other authorized use of force and was acting only as a private citizen, despite the fact that he is a police officer," she wrote.

"Todd's limited and brief use of his hand to stop what he reasonably believed was theft ended in seconds when the reasonableness of his belief changed. Our office's only role in this matter was to review the completed BCA investigation to determine whether a crime can be charged. To go forward with criminal charges, a prosecutor must have a reasonable belief a case can be proven beyond a reasonable doubt at trial. As prosecutors, we neither review nor provide an opinion as to whether Todd's actions were appropriate under any other standard.

"Based upon the criminal burden of proof, we find that a jury would not find that Todd's actions were an unreasonable use of force that amounted to assault under these circumstances. Therefore, no charges will be filed in this incident. Our file, as it relates to Todd, will be closed."

Todd did not respond to an emailed request for comment on Friday.

The 12-year-old boy's father, Matt Carrier, a youth football and basketball coach in Detroit Lakes, released this statement on behalf of his family:

"We have read the Stearns County report which states the findings of the investigation and their decision not to file charges. We are not in agreement with some of the interpretations of the law by Stearns County, for example what is considered reasonable force in this situation.

"The letter says the review is based upon the 'criminal burden of proof and does not reflect an opinion as to whether Todd's conduct was appropriate under any other standard.' In our opinion is was obviously inappropriate under 'any other standard.'

"The City of Detroit Lakes should now review what their standard of conduct is with their police chief. Hopefully the standard does not include immediately grabbing minors by the front of the throat when they are doing nothing wrong.

"We understand that the chief mistakenly thought our son was stealing his bike, but don't agree with his response of grabbing our son the way he did and calling him a 'punk.' Anybody who knows our son well, would agree he is a good kid, as he was demonstrating by picking up a bike that he or another girl nearby mistakenly knocked over.

"Just because there were no charges filed or discipline placed on Chief Todd, yet, doesn't mean that what he did was okay, we all still have the right to our own thoughts on that.

"Why didn't he just say 'stop!' or at the most grab our son's arm, but no, he grabbed his throat, and here we are. We'd like to know what his past training is to deal with a situation like this. I doubt it is to grab a child by the throat and insult them.

"We are sure most parents would agree with our stance and support and defend their child.

"It seems Mayor Matt Brenk did not think much about whether the chief should be put on leave or not right after the event. He immediately responded to the media that it was unnecessary for the chief to be put

on leave during the investigation, as he said he saw no reason to do so.

Soon after the event we wrote a letter that was hand-delivered to Mayor Brenk explaining the situation. Neither the mayor or any city council members replied to our letter or reached out to us for more information or even acknowledged what happened.

"It concerns us still that the responding officer that night was reluctant to talk to witnesses on the scene and that he never took official statements from them at the time that could be used in the investigation.

"The State Bureau of Criminal Apprehension later needed to initiate and track down the witnesses. The BCA did great work and put forth an unbiased, honest and solid effort.

"Even though we are disappointed, especially on how the leadership of our city handled this, we are very appreciative of all the support our family has received from the good people in our community."

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