Rochester, MN  (KROC AM News) - A Rochester police officer who was placed on paid leave earlier this year after posting social media messages described as “racially charged and offensive” has been suspended.

The punishment was announced Thursday by Police Chief Roger Peterson, who had ordered an investigation into the incident. Peterson says Officer Ben Schlag has been suspended 10 days without pay. The suspension began Thursday.  

Peterson says Schlag has decided on his own to attend classes “relating to cultural dynamics and their impact on his work and his relationships with the community.” Peterson says Schlag will spend his own time and money on completing the classes.

Peterson says Schlag has apologized to the community and co-workers for his actions. Peterson says he realizes many feel Schlag should be fired but he doesn’t feel “it would be the right thing to do.”

The posts were made last year on Schlag’s personal Facebook account and came to the attention of a Minneapolis group that filed a complaint with the city in February.

Peterson also says the department’s Professional Standards Manager who was relieved of his duties earlier this year has submitted his resignation, effective June 1st. Scott Hildebrand was in charge of the investigation involving Schlag. Peterson says Hildebrand had become aware of the posts made by Schlag but failed to address the issue.

Here is Chief Peterson’s full announcement of the suspension:

Earlier this year, the Rochester Police Department received a complaint in regard to one of our officers, Ben Schlag, posting messages to social media that were “racially charged and offensive.” Officer Schlag was subsequently relieved of duty while an independent investigation into this matter was completed.

There has been considerable discussion regarding the context of those posts. There has been no debate, however, about their adverse impact on the faith and trust of those we serve.

That is not acceptable and I apologize that this occurred in our community. Equally important, Ben apologizes for what he recognizes in retrospect hurt, not only people he is sworn to protect, but the people that he works with.

I know many people believe Ben should be terminated as a result of this incident. I understand that and, to be frank, that would be the easy thing to do in this case. I don’t, however, believe it would be the right thing to do.

This incident had serious consequences and punishment is warranted. As such, Ben will be suspended without pay for 10 working days (105 hours).

Punishment alone, however, doesn’t actually solve problems. If we realistically expect our response to this incident to have meaningful impact, we have an obligation to do more than simply discipline, we have to do the hard work necessary to actually better ourselves.

As hard as this has been, this incident has required us to confront some very difficult issues – and provided us the opportunity to learn from that experience. If we are to gain from that experience, we have to be willing to do what is required of us to rebuild relationships and restore the faith and trust of those we serve. We are committed to doing that.     

Ben is committed to doing that as well. In addition to the discipline imposed by the Department, Ben will attend classes and complete assignments relating to cultural dynamics and their impact on his work and his relationships with the community. Ben has committed to doing this on his own, spending his own time and money in order to learn from this experience.  

I believe he should be given that opportunity.

While Ben’s social media posts were clearly offensive to our community, they were not reflective of the values Ben has demonstrated in his personal and professional life. Ben has been devoted to public service, enlisting in the military shortly after 9/11 and serving honorably in Iraq. He has worked hard for this community for the past five years receiving 12 letters of appreciation as well as a life-saving award. Until this incident, he had never generated a complaint. The people that work with Ben offer no excuses or alibis for his insensitive social media posts – but they also recognize those posts don’t represent Ben as the person they know.

Those values were evident in Ben’s response to this issue. Instead of denials or rationalizations, he was very sorry and ashamed that he had acted in a way that had offended people. Before we were even aware that a complaint was pending, he had locked down his social media account and provided his user name and password to the Department so that any evidence would be preserved – not destroyed.

Although Ben wasn’t aware of the gravity of his social media posts, he was acutely aware of the need to take personal responsibility for his actions. Had he not immediately done so, any decisions about “the right thing to do” would have been much easier.

As it is, Ben has a long road ahead of him – and he is not alone. It will take a lot of work by a lot of people to regain the confidence of people that have been impacted by this event. We are willing to do that work and we will be a better Department for that effort.

This will not be an easy thing to do but it is something we must do. We can learn from our mistakes. We have to as learning is the only way to create change, not just in individuals, but in organizations – and professions.

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