The Free Press, Mankato, MN

July 21, 2013

Officer in crash criticized in internal documents

By Mark Fischenich

---- — NEW ULM — The city of New Ulm and patrol officer Mathew Rasmussen didn't officially admit to wrongdoing in a $570,000 legal settlement of a lawsuit filed by the family of two people killed by a speeding squad car, and prosecutors declined to file any criminal charges or citations against him.

But internal police department documents say Rasmussen's actions demonstrated "substandard decision making," that his performance constituted "misfeasance of duty" and that the department had been notified more than once about his "aggressive" driving.

The information was contained in Rasmussen's personnel file, provided by the city to The Free Press following a request under the Minnesota Data Practices Act.

Rasmussen's punishment was limited to a three-day suspension without pay for his actions on July 8, 2011, when an 82-year-old New Ulm woman and her 60-year-old son from Mankato were killed after the 31-year-old officer's squad — traveling at 70 mph or more without emergency lights or siren on a residential street — slammed into their left-turning Mercury Sable.

But the file also outlined a yearlong "performance improvement" plan to closely monitor Rasmussen's actions, including video recordings of entire patrol shifts, a daily log where he would have to document all his actions and a temporary prohibition of road-side enforcement of speeding laws.

"Officer Rasmussen will understand (upon completion of the performance improvement plan) that traffic enforcement is a continuous risk management process in which all geographical factors, climatic factors, traffic flow factors, pedestrian factors, vehicle management and equipment systems and violation severity need to be taken in to consideration," according to the file.

The reference to "violation severity" appears to reflect concern that the crash occurred after Rasmussen decided to pursue and ticket a speeder who he estimated was traveling 44 mph on Garden Street. After delays in beginning the pursuit because of traffic on the street, the squad car rapidly accelerated to 70 mph or more and the accelerator was to the floor less than a second before the collision.

In the explanation of his suspension, the report notes that the double fatality occurred while Rasmussen was attempting to affect a traffic stop of a "petty misdemeanor violator." It also noted his speed, the presence of other traffic, that Garden is a 30 mph two-lane street and that neither the emergency light bar nor siren were used in the moments leading up to the collision even though he had been trained that both pieces of equipment are in place "to alert the public of potential excessive squad car speed."

"Officer Rasmussen's actions constitute misfeasance and warrant this disciplinary action," the report concluded.

The file also indicates he was too focused on ticketing traffic violators and mentions other complaints about Rasmussen's driving: "New Ulm Police Department administration has been notified by the public and a member of another agency that Officer Rasmussen's driving conduct had been aggressive."

The performance improvement plan required Rasmussen to keep a handwritten daily shift log, broken down into 15-minute increments, detailing his patrol activity, his response to calls and other tasks. When a sergeant wasn't on duty to supervise Rasmussen, he was told to use an in-squad recording system to video/audio record all patrolling and provide the recording to Police Chief Myron Wieland.

The plan also included attendance of emergency vehicle operations training shortly after his suspension and a one-year ban on stationary radar (where an officer parks his squad beside a road to monitor the speed of on-coming vehicles).

The only other disciplinary notes in his file related to his failure to remove a non-departmental issue raincoat when instructed by his sergeant and a Dec. 11, 2011, incident where he showed "below standard" decision-making by "deflecting a DWI suspect's face due to the suspect spitting ... ."

The three-day suspension — which would have totaled $567 in lost salary based on his starting pay in January 2010 — was implemented in April 2012, the same time the performance improvement process began. Rasmussen remains a patrol officer in the department, according to city records, so the performance improvement requirements have apparently been met.

The city and Rasmussen, working through their insurer, agreed last spring to a $570,000 settlement with the heirs of Myra Meyer and Brian Wichmann, the victims of the crash. Prosecutors declined to pursue any criminal action against Rasmussen late in 2011.