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Residents often turn to police to settle disputes

By Emily Welker

MOORHEAD – When a woman moved into her home on Third Avenue South here last year, she was surprised to see a sign in a neighbor’s front window saying the 74-year-old man and his wife next door were sex offenders.

Concerned, the single mother looked up the elderly couple on the sex offender registry and found no trace of them, according to court documents.

That’s because they weren’t sex offenders.

They were embroiled in a decade-long dispute over property lines with the couple next door. A photograph of the way they mowed their lawn showed the crux of the problem, said Moorhead police Lt. Tory Jacobson.

“Way into the other person’s yard, right under the picture window,” he said. “And they were like, this is where we see the property line.”

The photo was taken after the elderly couple asked a judge to sign off on a restraining order against the aggressive mowers that ordered them to stop harassing them.

According to their affidavit, the neighbors of the elderly couple also called the police because they were blowing their snow the wrong way, because their security light was shining on their yard too much and because they suspected them of trying to install a concrete slab in their yard.

Longstanding disagreements that eventually boil over and require authorities to step in are fairly common, local police said. These “nuisance-type calls,” as police refer to them, are usually issues that seem slight to outside observers – or at least began that way.

“When you talk about civil disputes, they’re incredibly complex,” Jacobson said. “Oftentimes there’s a history there.”

He remembers one case from his days working as a beat officer in which an enraged woman threw the contents of a bedpan on her neighbor’s house.

“The dog was pooping in her yard,” Jacobson said.

Dogs defecating and barking where they’re not appreciated are a frequent complaint. Yards left a mess or overgrown grass are equally common.

After sometimes years of back and forth between neighbors, “what many people would look at as very petty, over time has become very sensitive to them,” said Fargo police Lt. Joel Vettel.

They don’t often rise to the level of a criminal offense, police said, and at most could result in a misdemeanor charge of disorderly conduct or criminal mischief.

In the bedpan case, Jacobson decided to exercise his discretion and not recommend the woman for criminal mischief charges. She was dealing with some “pretty extreme medical situations” in her home, Jacobson said, and was “under a lot of stress.”

In some ways, the real damage from these calls is to law enforcement. Vettel said police may get a dozen or more calls a year to the same residences over the course of a year for matters that aren’t criminal. That can be a significant drain on resources, he said.

“Is it offensive? Name-calling? Yeah,” Vettel said. But the behavior isn’t criminal, and “in those situations, the police aren’t too helpful.”

Jacobson pointed out it’s only considered an issue for police enforcement if there is a judge’s order in place that is violated.

That’s why some neighbors seek such orders, like the one sought by the elderly couple in June in Clay County District Court.

A request for a harassment order filed in Clay County in November was also over a dispute that traced back to a contested property line.

The woman who lives on Fifth Avenue South in Moorhead who was the subject of the restraining order had taken issue with a new fence built by her next-door neighbors, who have lived next to her for 13 years.

The family filed a lawsuit after she allegedly installed four security cameras pointed at their yard, called the Minnesota Department of Agriculture to claim they were using toxic yard chemicals, painted her fence with words reading “Caution Deranged Abusive Vicious Malicious Toxic Chemical Use” and hinted darkly that the husband was due for another heart attack.

None of the subjects who were involved in either of the restrainer order cases would comment for this story.

Once a harassment restraining order is granted, it is a crime if its subject violates it, Jacobson said. Otherwise, he said, officers have to be careful not to leave the impression they have any authority in civil matters.

Vettel and Jacobson said their departments consider it a huge part of a police officer’s responsibility to help neighbors find a resolution they can live with – a literal “keeping of the peace” on their beats.

Fargo officers will often try to engage in mediation between the parties, acting as a neutral go-between to diffuse hostilities and set up face-to-face meetings.

It’s not a formal process and police officers can’t compel any of the parties to participate, Vettel said.

“Are we going to be able to walk in and make everybody love each other? No,” Vettel said. But, he said, “officers have been trained in de-escalation.”