Bismarck officer fired after excessive force allegations; attorney says officer acted with restraint
The fired officer's attorney said the case will cause officers to second-guess their ability to defend themselves in critical situations.
Editor’s note: This article contains a graphic image. We are publishing the photo because it illustrates the severity of the injuries involved with the excessive force allegation.
BISMARCK — A Bismarck police officer has been fired after a department investigation into allegations that he used excessive force during a March arrest.
Officer George Huff was fired Sunday, May 21, according to the Bismarck Police Department.
"We will continue to hold ourselves to the highest professional standard of policing to ensure we maintain the trust and respect of the citizens we serve," the department said in a statement.
The case is one that Huff's attorney says is about a "police department scared of the cancel culture of officers defending themselves if the optic is bad," and one that will cause officers to second-guess their ability to defend themselves in critical situations.
Officers on March 9 responded to a call that a pedestrian was in the road at 24th Street and East Main Avenue. The man “began displaying aggressive behavior” when attempts were made to detain him, according to police. The department after inquiry from the Tribune a few days after the incident identified the man as 63-year-old Keith Erlandson. The inquiry was prompted by a Burleigh Morton Detention Center booking photo in which Erlandson appeared bloodied and with one eye swollen shut.
Huff was the first officer to arrive at the scene on March 9. Force was used to detain Erlandson, and assisting officers reported to administration that the force appeared excessive. Huff was placed on administrative leave and did not return to duties before he was fired, the department said.
An investigation by Bismarck Police Internal Affairs led to a Disciplinary Review Board recommendation that Huff’s employment be terminated.
“Chief (Dave) Draovitch agreed that Huff had violated several BPD policies and terminated the officer’s employment,” according to a department statement.
Huff at the time of the incident had been with the department about four years. He had no prior disciplinary documents in his file, a department spokesman said.
Christopher Redmann, Huff's attorney, said nothing in his client's termination paperwork mentions facts from the night or provides any analysis from the incident.
"The only listed facts are character assassination vignettes from the past which never gave rise to previous discipline," Redmann said in a statement to the Tribune.
Huff used "reasonable force to effect a lawful seizure against a suspect who kept ratcheting up his resistance," the attorney said. Huff took Erlandson to the ground "to prevent a full on fight," and Erlandson once the two were on the ground tried to put Huff in a headlock and tried to bite him, then grabbed at Huff's chest-mounted knife — a situation in which officers are trained to respond with deadly force, Redmann said.
"Instead, Officer Huff again used minimal force and merely punched the suspect several times to stop his attempts to be disarmed and be put in a choke hold. Officer Huff could've resorted to using deadly force which would've been entirely justified," Redmann said.
The Police Department in the Monday statement said the incident “is not a reflection on the good work BPD officers perform every day, with integrity.”
“The officers who quickly reported this issue to their chain of command took steps to protect the safety of our community, as we expect from our force,” officials said.
The findings of a probe by the North Dakota Bureau of Criminal Investigation have been forwarded to prosecutors. Burleigh County State’s Attorney Julie Lawyer on Monday did not immediately respond to a Tribune request for information about possible charges. Court records on Monday did not list any criminal charges against Huff.
Redmann said Huff will be taking the case to the city Civil Service Commission, which handles appeals on city employee disciplinary matters.