Red Wing community has questions about firing Police Chief Roger Pohlman

Brian Todd, Post-Bulletin, Rochester, Minn.
·6 min read

Feb. 23—RED WING — After digesting the firing of Red Wing Police Chief Roger Pohlman, residents in the city have been left with a bad taste in their mouths.

"This decision by the council does not pass the smell test," said Liz Rickert, who identified herself as a resident of Goodhue County, during Monday's Red Wing City Council meeting.

Rickert was one of a half-dozen individuals who questioned the city council's decision last Friday to fire Pohlman. Those individuals brought up concerns ranging from the speed of the process, the fairness in firing Pohlman, and how the city will find a replacement after what many see as an unjust firing.

Only one individual spoke in favor of firing Pohlman. Chaz Neal, a self-described community activist, said Pohlman had "hate-mongered" by using misleading or untrue information.

However, several individuals still wondered, what had Roger Pohlman done to justify getting fired?

Performance on the job

Mayor Mike Wilson, who was elected last November, said when the city council put Pohlman on paid administrative leave on Feb. 8, he looked up Pohlman's performance reviews for the past five years. What he found was four straight glowing reviews followed by a poor review for this past year.

"It's pretty weak I think," Wilson said of the stated reasons for firing Pohlman. "There's nothing really solid in there. But this didn't just happen overnight."

Wilson said, as someone who ran a business for years, it makes no sense to simply fire someone after years of good service when seeing one bad review.

"When you have an employee you have issues with, you sit down and discuss it and carry on," he said.

Part of the problem, said John Becker, is the city changed the way it reviewed its top department heads this past year. Previously, reviews were conducted by City Administrator Kay Kuhlmann, but in 2020, the process changed so that city council members were given a voice via a questionnaire.

Becker, who served on the Red Wing City Council from January 2017 through December 2020, said one part of the review included a series of subjective questions such as how the individual being reviewed makes you feel, or whether you trust that person.

"It's what you do if you're looking to build a case, and that's what I felt was happening, is he was being set up," Becker said. "It wasn't done professionally."

Two incidents stand out

If Pohlman had made any enemies in city leadership, Wilson said one incident stands out. That would be a complaint filed against Pohlman by Council Member Dean Hove, who got angry after a meeting about body cameras in December 2019. After the meeting, Hove was approached by Pohlman's wife, who asked whether a city council member whose family member was a "frequent flier" with the police department might vote no regarding body cameras.

Hove, visibly outraged according to witnesses, filed a complaint against Pohlman the next day, accusing Pohlman of sharing confidential police information with his wife.

The city then paid an outside firm nearly $7,500 to conduct an investigation of the issue. The investigators, in their conclusion, described Pohlman as "credible and forthright," and cited Pohlman's testimony as a demonstration of "his fidelity to the truth."

While the Post Bulletin has obtained a copy of this complaint and report, Wilson said when he went to review Pohlman's status after the Feb. 8 vote he was told by Kuhlmann that the city attorney said he was not permitted to see the documents.

"I tried to get that information too," Wilson said.

Wilson said after the city council and mayor at the time reviewed the investigation report, Hove got angry and Kuhlmann insisted the copies given to council members be returned.

Teens, cars and Covill Park

Becker pointed to a different incident occurring last summer where Pohlman earned the ire of several city council members.

On Aug. 15 a group of young adults gathered in Covill Park to talk and show off their cars. There were vehicles with loud exhaust pipes, tinted windows and, in the case of a few, individuals with "Trump 2020" or American flags, said Becker, who upon hearing about the incident drove down to the park to witness what was happening.

Becker said other council members "wanted them all locked up" for what he described as minor violations. ""They wanted Roger to put the hammer down," Becker said.

"This was not the Aryan Nation," said Becker.

While police and sheriff's deputies rolled through the area about every 15 minutes, at one point two young women got on a picnic table and began antagonizing the individuals with American or Trump flags, yelling "F--- Trump!", according to Becker, and trying to get a reaction out of the other members of the crowd.

Eventually, police arrived and broke up the meeting, and no one was arrested, which was the right call, Becker said.

Moving forward, new chief

The city has not announced its plans to hire a new police chief.

At Monday's meeting, Red Wing resident Deborah Cerkovnik told the council she had serious concerns about their decision to fire Pohlman, and wondered about replacing him, calling him fair-minded and just.

"Who could be more qualified?" she asked. "Our chief has faithfully served this city for eight years."

Janie Farrar, who ran unsuccessfully for mayor last year, said firing Pohlman won't improve the view of the city's leadership in the minds of the rank-and-file in the police department, which respected Pohlman but, according to a survey, showed little trust in the city council. And that reputation will make it hard to find a replacement.

Farrar had circulated a petition last week prior to the vote Friday night. Of the signatories of that petition, Farrar said, it was a good cross-section of Red Wing citizens including people from all political persuasions and differing racial and ethnic backgrounds.

"There were many different opinions that all stood behind him," Farrar said.

Council Member Kim Beise, the only "no" vote in firing Pohlman last week, said while he saw this coming, he still can't explain why the city council fired Pohlman, and the listed reasons just don't add up.

"I watched him in the community and listened to him. No matter who you were, what your status, he treated them all the same. He cared for them all the same," Beise said. "It just baffles me, knowing the type of man Roger is."