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Criminal charges filed against Hastings police officer

Hastings Patrol Officer Rene Doffing was charged Friday with three counts of assault, criminal vehicular injury, and two counts of misconduct by a public officer in connection to a March 2007 incident in which Doffing allegedly hit a suspect with his squad car while on patrol.

According to the State Patrol's investigation of the incident, Doffing was on patrol at approximately 2:15 a.m., March 26, 2007, when he saw what looked like a fight beginning outside of the Coliseum Sports Bar and Grill on 18th and Vermillion streets.

When Doffing drove up to the group in his squad car, Brandon Bruce Johnson, 23, Bay City, Wis., walked away from the group, according to the complaint.

When Doffing told him to stop, Johnson ran across Vermillion Street toward the empty lot on the northeast corner of 18th and Vermillion streets, the complaint said.

On his way across the street, Johnson tripped over the center median and was almost struck by a vehicle, according to the complaint.

Doffing's report of the incident stated he pursued Johnson across the street into the empty lot and was attempting to get in front of Johnson with his squad car.

He said he was traveling at a speed of around 10 mph when Johnson turned and fell toward the front of the car. Doffing reported Johnson fell into the left front side of his squad's fender and rolled up onto the windshield.

A State Patrol investigation of the incident concluded Doffing was accelerating toward Johnson for approximately 89 feet prior to impact, and that just before hitting him, the squad car turned slightly to the left toward Johnson.

After being hit, Johnson fell onto the squad car's windshield, causing it to shatter, and was thrown forward approximately 19 feet before coming to rest on his back.

The State Patrol report said Doffing had to have been traveling at a speed of 20 mph or greater at the time of impact.

Sgt. Val Scharfe, who resigned from the police department in January, also responded to the scene when she heard Doffing say on the radio that Johnson was running from him, and reported seeing Doffing's vehicle jump a curb and then accelerate toward Johnson before hitting him.

Three days later, on March 29, Hastings Police Lt. Jim Rgnonti spoke to Johnson, who said he was out with a co-worker the night of the incident. Johnson said the co-worker was "acting up" in the bar and trying to fight people and that he, Johnson, was trying to calm down the co-worker outside when Doffing approached them. Johnson said the last thing he remembers from that night is being outside with his co-worker and trying to calm him down.

After being hit, Johnson was transported to Regina Medical Center and received stitches in his knee. According to the complaint, on June 28, 2007, State Patrol Sgt. Jennifer Trautner spoke to Johnson, who informed her that he had a subarticular fracture in a bone in his leg.

The charges in the criminal complaint, filed Friday in Dakota County District Court, were investigated by the State Patrol and determined by Olmstead County to avoid any conflict of interest. Of the six charges, three are felonies and three are gross misdemeanors and could carry a penalty of up to 19 years in prison and/or a fine of $41,000.

Paul Engh, Doffing's lawyer in the case, released a statement Tuesday that said the charges lack substance.

"Officer Doffing has enjoyed a distinguished 14-year career, free of insipidly false accusations until now," Engh said in the statement. "On January 25th, 2008, an experienced labor arbitrator found these same allegations wanting in both investigation and proof. The criminal complaint was filed only after Officer Doffing was reinstated to his position with the Hastings Police."

Doffing is due in court at 8:30 a.m., May 12, for a hearing in which he will establish his legal counsel and the court will determine how to proceed.

The Hastings Police Civil Service Commission approved a recommendation from Mayor Paul Hicks in May 2007 to fire Doffing, a decision that was challenged by Doffing's union.

Last month an arbitrator ruled that Doffing shouldn't have been fired for his actions in connection with the March 26 incident, but that he should have received a 30-day unpaid suspension. Though the decision effectively gave Doffing his job back at the police department, he has not yet returned to work.

Since the decision was made public, some have characterized the city's firing of Doffing as a "witch hunt," which Mayor Paul Hicks denies.

"The arbitrator's decision requiring serious disciplinary action based on the facts of this case ought to speak for itself," Hicks said in a statement after the decision was released.

"When an individual is privileged to wear a badge, he or she assumes a necessary public trust to protect and to serve. This trust and responsibility is central to effective law enforcement. As mayor, I am required to review any matter or conduct that may put that trust in jeopardy," he added.

According to City Attorney Dan Fleugel, the city is still considering appealing the arbitrator's decision in Dakota County District Court.

The arbitrator's decision means Doffing is entitled to back pay for the approximately nine months the arbitration was going on, minus the 30-day unpaid suspension.

That back pay has not yet been paid to Doffing because the city is still considering appealing the decision, according to Police Chief Mike McMenomy.

Doffing is technically on paid administrative leave but is not receiving paychecks because of the pending decision on whether to appeal the arbitration decision, McMenomy said.

Had he not already been on paid leave, he would have been placed on it when the felony charges were filed against him, which is normal procedure for the department.

If Doffing is convicted of a felony, he will lose his peace officer license, and therefore, his job at the department.

Doffing has been a member of the Hastings Police Department since 1994.