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Fargo, West Fargo officers see more discipline than those in Moorhead, Dilworth

FARGO – Over the span of a year, the Fargo Police Department took disciplinary action against its officers and civilian employees 16 times. That number was 11 for West Fargo police, and four for the Cass County Sheriff’s Office.

Across the border in Minnesota, the picture changes dramatically.

During the same time frame, June 2013 to June 2014, the Clay County Sheriff’s Office and the Moorhead and Dilworth police departments formally disciplined a total of one officer – a Clay County jailer who received a verbal reprimand for making derogatory statements to an inmate.

Granted, the Moorhead area has fewer officers than the Fargo area and the numbers only offer a 12-month snapshot, but officials say the discrepancy in discipline can possibly be traced to differences in state law and union representation. In Minnesota, local officers are unionized, and state law spells out protections for officers under investigation. Neither of these facts are true in North Dakota.

“Things are so defined in Minnesota, and there’s such a burden of proof on the part of management. You’re almost comparing apples and oranges,” said Moorhead Police Chief David Ebinger.

The Moorhead Police Department completed five internal probes over 12 months but handed down no discipline to any of its 53 officers or 21 civilian staffers. In each of those probes, the department’s supervisors mounted a case akin to a criminal prosecution, with much paperwork and due process, that had to be able to withstand legal scrutiny because of Minnesota’s laws, Ebinger said.

Minnesota’s largest police union, Law Enforcement Labor Services, represents Clay County sheriff’s deputies and police officers in Moorhead and Dilworth.

The union’s general counsel, Isaac Kaufman, said he believes the labor contracts and legal protections for Minnesota officers strike a balance between a department’s need to enforce policies and an officer’s rights.

“If the question is, ‘Are officers getting away with things in Minnesota that they don’t get away with in North Dakota or in other states?’ I don’t think that that’s the case,” Kaufman said.

Lt. Joel Vettel, spokesman for the Fargo Police Department, said that while North Dakota law allows supervisors to deal straightforwardly with officers under investigation, the process is still thorough and fair.

“The reason why (internal investigations) take a long time is because we have a number of eyes that are looking at these to ensure that we’re getting different perspectives,” he said.

The Fargo Police Department, which has 149 officers and 20 civilian employees, conducted 29 internal investigations in 12 months. Vettel said these investigations were a result of the department holding its officers to a high level of accountability.

However, some officers feel the number of such investigations is overkill, said Grant Benjamin, president of North Dakota’s Fraternal Order of Police.

“I don’t know if the department realizes the stress they put the officers under when they continually investigate almost any incident that comes up,” Benjamin said. “It just seems like it’s gone way over to the extreme to where it’s now where officers second-guess themselves.”

The Forum made open-record requests for the discipline files of the metro area’s four police departments and two sheriff’s offices. Of those agencies, the West Fargo Police Department, which has 43 officers and 11 civilian employees, had the most internal investigations with 70.

West Fargo Police Chief Mike Reitan said many of his department’s investigations were ones that originated with a complaint from the public. He said the question of which complaints are worth investigating is open to interpretation and varies from agency to agency.

“We are going to take every complaint seriously because each complaint is serious to the individual who made it,” Reitan said.

Many of West Fargo’s internal investigations were resolved quickly, and the officers were exonerated, he said. But other cases led to discipline. There were five written reprimands, four verbal reprimands and two letters of counseling.

  •  Two West Fargo police officers were each given a written reprimand for removing two dogs from the camper of an incarcerated man in September. Their action was deemed an unreasonable search and seizure.
  •   An officer received a written reprimand because he turned off the video camera in his squad car during a slow-speed pursuit in August 2013. Reitan did not know why the officer switched off the camera.
  •  A written reprimand was given to a sergeant in April for using the state computer system to run a license plate number for a friend and then sharing information from the search with the friend.

    The Cass County Sheriff’s Office issued three written reprimands and a one-day suspension without pay.

  •   A patrol deputy received the one-day suspension in June 2013 for twice failing to turn in citations to Cass County District Court because they were placed in her vehicle where she could not see them. She also failed to turn in monthly logs on time for nine months in a row.
  • A jail officer was investigated for not periodically checking on the well-being of inmates and falsifying records to show that she had. The officer was also accused of leaving her shift without a supervisor present, making inappropriate comments to staff and behaving inappropriately at work. The officer resigned in the fall before she could be disciplined.

    Fargo police gave out 10 letters of consultation, four letters of reprimand and two suspensions without pay.

  • An officer received a three-day suspension for violating the department’s pursuit policy when he twice collided with a fleeing vehicle in January.
  • An officer was given a two-day suspension for pulling an uncooperative, handcuffed woman out of a squad car. “It wasn’t excessive force. It just wasn’t necessary,” Vettel said.
  • An officer received a letter of reprimand for reaching 91 mph on First Avenue North while responding to an emergency call in November.
  • In June 2013, an officer pulled over a civilian employee of the Fargo Police Department for speeding and gave her a verbal warning, while other drivers with similar infractions that day had been cited. The officer was given a letter of consultation.
  • Three gold rings with diamonds found by a student on a school playground in 2012 were turned over to an officer who placed them in her gun safe and left them there for nearly two years without trying to find the owner or looking into whether they were stolen. A letter of consultation was given to the officer in March.