By Tom Steward │Watchdog Minnesota Bureau
EDINA, Minn.— As a law officer, former Todd County Deputy Sheriff Mark Grinstead didn’t miss much.
After all, why try to avoid something when it’s a lot easier to just hit it?
Grinstead, it must be said, hit many things — deer, cows, trees, buildings and snow banks, for example. In 17 years, he had 33 wrecks.
Grinstead racked up about $100,000 in losses while patrolling the rural county roads.
A certified emergency vehicle instructor, Grinstead served as a Todd County field training officer, “working with less experienced Deputies familiarizing them with such duties as operation of squad cars under different conditions,” according to state arbitration records.
His record in the line of duty, while driving a patrol car, includes run-ins with 19 deer, a dog, pheasants, cows, a garage, a fence post and a raccoon.
After hitting a ditch and several trees in pursuit of a speeder in 2005, Grinstead wrote the sheriff: “I have to slow down,” Grinstead was quoted in an arbitrator’s account. “Being a pursuit-driving instructor, I have to set the example, not be the example … I have learned that my crashes put a burden on the Todd County Sheriff’s Office, are bad publicity and I should not need to swap squad cars with other Deputies.”
As “squad car crashes increased notably” — four crashes in two months and three vehicles in the repair shop — Todd County officials fired Grinstead in May 2013.
Case closed? Not by a long shot.
Minnesota’s biggest law enforcement labor union promptly filed a grievance with a state arbitrator. Law Enforcement Services claimed the deputy was not “provided proper notice of the supposed reasons for his termination or the policies that he is alleged to have violated,” and that Grinstead’s “work record does not provide a sufficient basis for termination,” the Minnesota Bureau of Mediation Servicesdecision shows.
“Officer Grinstead chose to exercise rights that he has under his collective bargaining agreement and it’s our role to zealously represent our members through these processes,” said Isaac Kaufman, general counsel for the union, Law Enforcement Labor Services Inc.
Watchdog Minnesota Bureau’s attempts to reach Grinstead for comment through his attorney were unsuccessful.
The Freedom Foundation of Minnesota highlighted the Todd County arbitration case as an example of excessive influence by public employee unions. The grievance played out over six months before the Minnesota Bureau of Mediation Services, generating 86 exhibits in evidence and 740 total pages of testimony and transcripts. The paper trail led FFM to suggest the county add a “33 strikes and you’re out” provision to its contract with deputies.
“This shows the absurd extent to which government employee unions exert control over personnel matters in government,” said Jonathan Blake, vice president of the Freedom Foundation of Minnesota. “It costs taxpayers in terms of dollars and in potential harm to public safety.”
Arbitrator Rolland Toenges’ 25-page decision upholding Grinstead’s termination serves as a template for the process, which local governments must follow in disputes with public union employees.
The case files show the risk of running into wildlife goes with the job. They show an average of five crashes per year among 12 other Todd County deputies, including another officer who averaged almost two wrecks a year.
Yet county representatives terminated Grinstead “based on his longstanding history of vehicle accidents, mostly due to excessive speed, driving unreasonably in light of conditions, and distracted driving.”
On one shift in 2011, Grinstead had two wrecks involving deer. In February 2013, he hit a deer that caused significant damage to his car. Days later in a loaner car, Grinstead struck another deer. Then, in April of that year, he was driving 99 mph on his way to a domestic call when — you guessed it — he took out another deer.
The, uh, tipping point came April 30, 2013, when he struck a 500-pound cow going about 55 mph. He was on cruise control. Until he hit the cow, of course.
An accident reconstruction expert with the Minnesota State Patrol concluded Grinstead “should have been able to take some action prior to hitting the cow.”
Three colleagues testified they “do not consider him a reckless or careless driver,” including a fellow deputy since promoted to interim Todd County sheriff. Grinstead’s lawyer made the case that “the evidence does not support the conclusion that the Grievant was at fault in any of the crashes that took place in March and April of 2013, due to inattentive or reckless driving,” according to the arbitrator’s record.
“We respect the decision, but certainly we believed that Mark Grinstead, taking everything into consideration, was a very good officer and that in light of his lengthy service to the county and all the other evidence in the record that there wasn’t just cause to terminate him,” said Kaufman, general counsel for the union.
On Jan. 9, arbitrator Toenges upheld Todd County’s decision to fire Mark Grinstead. The former deputy appears to have driven just a few miles down the road to Osakis, where the city website lists Grinstead as a part-time police officer.