Incident highlights gaps in criminal background check procedures
A Loring Park employee stabbed a man three times outside the Loring Park recreation center -- puncturing his lung and sending him to the hospital for several days -- following a dispute triggered by the victim's aggressive behavior and his drinking in the park, city and park police said.
The significance of the May 7 assault goes beyond Loring Park and illustrates a blind spot in how the Park Police does thousands of background checks each year on new employees and park volunteers.
The incident has triggered a review of Park Board hiring practices - including the timeliness of background checks, said Emily Ero-Phillips, a Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board spokeswoman.
Tyrone Pearson, 45, 168 13th Ave. N.E., is charged with second-degree assault, according to court records.
The Park Board hired Pearson April 7 as a recreation attendant III, a part-time position paying $6.60 an hour, Ero-Phillips said. Pearson was not on duty at the time of the stabbing, she said. However, city police said Pearson was enforcing park rules at the time of the incident.
According to Park Police background investigator Peter Johnson, Pearson is a career criminal -- with a criminal history extending back decades, including felony theft convictions. It was information the Park Board did not have prior to the stabbing.
Johnson had not started Pearson's criminal background check when the stabbing occurred, he said. But even if he had done the standard background check, he would not have found most of Pearson's criminal past.
Standard checks on new park employees and volunteers only cover Minnesota crimes, Johnson said. Under current procedures, the Park Board would not know if an applicant or volunteer was convicted of murder, child sexual assault or other crimes outside the state.
Many of Pearson's criminal incidents occurred in Florida, for instance, and would have remained invisible, Johnson said.
To assure accuracy, the FBI requires the Park Board and other jurisdictions to submit fingerprints for national criminal background checks of prospective employees, said a staff person at the state Bureau of Criminal Apprehension.
Park Police Lt. Loren Evenrud said using fingerprints would take more staff and more money and is not now part of the Park Board's background process.
"We have a tough enough time staying current," he said. "We are not current now."
The incident On May 7 around 6:20 p.m., Pearson confronted a 31-year-old man for drinking in the park, a violation of park rules, said Sgt. Mike LaVine, the Minneapolis police investigator on the case.
Pearson had a previous run-in with the same man over park drinking, LaVine said. The second conflict started inside the park recreation center, where the victim attacked Pearson.
"The victim had been the aggressor," LaVine said. "There was a previous fight inside. The victim did go outside. The suspect (Pearson) followed and subsequently stabbed him."
The victim was not charged, LaVine said. He could not say whether the stabbing was self-defense. "That will be up to a judge and jury," LaVine said.
The investigation is ongoing.
"There were numerous people down there," he said. "There seems to be a reluctance for witnesses to talk to police about the incident, at that time or later."
The recreation center was open from 1 p.m. to 9:30 p.m. that day, according to the Park Board's Web site. The supervisor had gone to dinner at the time of the stabbing, park police said.
The supervisor had put an attendant other than Pearson on duty, Ero-Phillips said.
Background checks: A brief history The Park Board began background checks after a coach for a Sibley Park hockey team was convicted in 1996 for criminal sexual conduct with players, Evenrud said.
"He was a wake-up call," Evenrud said. "At that point, we assigned an officer full-time to background park employees and all volunteers."
The Park Board does roughly 5,000 checks a year, he said. They cover new employees and volunteers, such as coaches, summer playground help, lifeguards and temporary maintenance workers. The Park Board searches a special database using the individual's name and date of birth, Johnson said.
New hires begin work before the background check is completed, Johnson said. He processes them in large batches; sometimes the checks take a few days or a month, depending on other agencies' cooperation.
The Park Board evaluates applications according to state statutes. Serious crimes such as murder, manslaughter, felony assault, sexual assault, prostitution and certain crimes against children automatically disqualify employees or volunteers from working with children.
For those convicted of lesser crimes, Johnson said he prepares a report for the regional recreational supervisor who ultimately makes the hiring decision.
Johnson could not give the specifics of Pearson's criminal past, he said, "but I will tell you that it wasn't anything that was so bad that he would have been kept out of a job."
False positives and false negatives The Park Board's review of Pearson's record, had it been completed, would have shown local arrests for indecent conduct in 1995, theft in 1996, trespassing in 2001, and domestic assault in 2002, according to Hennepin County court records. However, not all of his arrests resulted in convictions. A theft charge and the indecent conduct charge were dismissed.
The background check would not have shown the Florida crimes, because the Park Board does not submit fingerprints.
As recently as last year, the Park Police used the FBI database for employment checks with only name and date of birth, giving them crimes from other states. However, Johnson said the state Bureau of Criminal Apprehension audited him and told him to stop.
Karen McDonald, assistant to the BCA superintendent, said federal law prohibits the state from doing name-and-date-of-birth searches on the FBI's system.
"The FBI has records on over 40 million subjects," she said. "A name-and-date-of-birth inquiry is not an effective way to check that file."
An FBI study determined that just using name and date of birth produced too many false positives and false negatives. The former could be unfair to the prospective employee, the latter unfair to the public by giving a false sense of security, McDonald said.
Still, Johnson and others have lobbied the state to permit employment checks through the national database.
"We run the risk of getting this (Pearson's) type of behavior or even worse - pedophiles, murderers, whatever," he said.
McDonald said she has heard the complaint from other jurisdictions. "The FBI's response is, 'Yes, you should do a background check. The process is to submit fingerprints,'" she said.
And that costs $24 per request. McDonald said the turnaround time is four to six weeks.
The Park Board's 5,000 annual background checks would add up to $120,000 -- not counting the extra staff needed to process them.
"I think it is humanly impossible, unless we added two more background investigators to do fingerprints," Lt. Evenrud said. "I don't know another organization that does it for volunteers."
In the end, Park Police did get access to the FBI national database to check on Pearson. Once a crime has occurred, FBI rules permit searches with only name and date of birth.
"I found out he was a career criminal," Johnson said, noting that Pearson's criminal history "goes back into the 1960s and 1970s. It was constant."