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40 pray for truth, justice during vigil to support suspended Minn. police chief

A group gathered to bring our city together through prayer outside behind Cloquet City Hall Tuesday evening. According to their Facebook page their goal was to bring the city together through worship, prayer and love. Jamie Lund / Forum News Service1 / 2
A large crowd filled the Cloquet City Hall chamber and flowed out into the hallway for the regular City Council meeting Tuesday night. Most of the people were in attendance to speak or listen to the way Cloquet Police Chief Steve Stracek was placed on paid administrative leave several weeks ago. While many of the speakers were in support of Stracek, two were not and several were more interested in the way the situation was handled. Jamie Lund/ Forum News Service2 / 2

CLOQUET, Minn. — About 40 people prayed outside Cloquet City Hall on Tuesday for truth and justice during an investigation of a complaint against suspended Cloquet Police Chief Steve Stracek.

The crowd prayed for unity and for city officials to be led by God during a 45-minute prayer vigil before the Cloquet City Council meeting, where more than 70 people filled the council chambers and spilled into the hallway of City Hall.

Vigil organizer Jenny Rackliffe of Cloquet said it was a positive way to bring the city together during a time of division and it wasn't a protest.

"We are praying for the integrity of our leaders and for God to help make decisions in our town and lead our leaders into making decisions," Rackliffe said.

Attendees said they're concerned about the secretive nature of the suspension, and that residents are in the dark about why their police chief has been placed on paid administrative leave.

Cloquet resident Gail Hamre said she believes prayer changes things — but she doesn't know what needs to be changed — and wants city officials to know that residents are concerned about "this mystery, whatever it is that we haven't been informed of."

She continued, "It's just been so hush-hush so hopefully it's time for whatever the issue is to be revealed. It's been really secretive and for a small community. That's kind of rare. ... We're all left to wonder and guess and we don't want to be in that place."

Stracek has remained on paid administrative leave since an emergency City Council meeting March 16, but officials have cited the ongoing investigation as a reason to release few details to the public. A Twin Cities firm is completing the investigation of the complaint. The Cloquet police officers' union, Teamsters Local 346, said in a March statement that Cloquet Police Department members conducted a vote of no confidence in Stracek due to concerns over his lack of leadership, communication, support for the officers and poor policy decisions. Stracek was hired as chief in August 2014 after working for 21 years with the Duluth Police Department. He was tasked with implementing changes in the department that were suggested in an independent study completed in January 2014.

Cloquet resident Andrew Genereau told the council Tuesday that he questioned the process the city followed in suspending Stracek and appointing the interim police chief.

"You took a fellow who was a sergeant to become the interim chief and bypassed the two commanders. That's a process that if this doesn't (work itself out) reasonably, our city's going to get sued. It will be a lot uglier and a lot more embarrassing," Genereau said.

During the meeting, two out of nine people who spoke opposed Stracek leading the Cloquet police department. Cloquet resident Randy Roberts, a U.S. Army officer for 25 years, questioned Stracek's leadership, saying it's a situation where a "good, affable man" doesn't understand the relationship between mission and men.

"Leaders lead men, men complete the mission. If you do not listen to those men, your mission degrades. I've seen it. I've seen commanders — good, nice people — who can't lead. That's the hands-down issue that we have here. It's not his character. It's his leadership that is lacking. I hope you understand the difference here," Roberts told the council.

Cloquet resident Paul Nordvall attended the vigil and spoke to the council in support of Stracek on Tuesday night. He said that he saw Stracek's work as a Duluth police officer firsthand while working at the St. Louis County Jail for a decade.

"Steve's character is full of integrity and professionalism, I've had to be in cells with him dealing with terribly combative people and even in tough situations, still with integrity and treating people with professionalism and never crossing that line," he said, adding that Stracek was an officer who was fair and excelled at de-escalating situations.

Nordvall said he thought Stracek was an excellent choice for police chief because he knew what Stracek would bring to Cloquet. He said he hopes the situation isn't an issue of a union stopping Stracek from doing his job and that Stracek will be able to continue to hold the police chief position.

"I know his leadership is going to provide quality and integrity for this city and (I hope) that the whole hierarchy of this city as a whole can use this as a learning experience to create unity instead of division," Nordvall said.

Cloquet Pine Journal editor Jana Peterson contributed to this report.