FARGO – The agents at the North Dakota Bureau of Criminal Investigation are all veterans of law enforcement, an elite group of self-starters who receive limited supervision, and as it turns out, limited discipline.
In the past six years, a total of one agent has been sanctioned for violating the bureau’s policies, according to a Forum analysis of BCI records.
North Dakota Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem, who oversees the BCI, says there’s not a lack of discipline among the state’s 43 agents, but the bureau’s critics disagree.
“Every time there’s any kind of incident, the immediate reaction from the Attorney General’s Office is, ‘Everything’s fine. Nothing was done wrong,’” said Kiara Kraus-Parr, a Grand Forks attorney running against Stenehjem in this fall’s election. “To me, that doesn’t seem like they’re taking things seriously.”
A couple of high-profile cases this year have called into question the actions of BCI agents, namely the foot chase of a suspect inside Fargo’s West Acres mall and the seizure of a payloader in Dickey County. Neither case resulted in an internal investigation or discipline, and Stenehjem has stood by the actions of his agents in both instances.
“We hold our officers to a high standard, and with rare exceptions, they meet it,” he said. “I will compare them favorably to any similar agency in the country.”
The lone case of discipline at the BCI in the past six years involved Agent Todd DeBoer, a former supervisor of the Bismarck area’s drug task force.
An internal investigation found that DeBoer lied to an assistant attorney general, which cast doubt on DeBoer’s ability to testify honestly in court. There were also allegations that he received pain medication without a prescription and misused state resources. BCI Director Dallas Carlson consequently fired DeBoer in February 2012.
‘Some big drug dealer’
Along with DeBoer’s case, the BCI has had four other internal investigations involving its sworn officers in the past six years, which is the limit on how long the state keeps personnel records.
- In 2008, LaMar Kruckenberg was investigated after the bureau received a complaint that he was rude to a worker in a car dealership’s oil change department in Bismarck. Kruckenberg, a training officer, resigned before any discipline could be handed down.
- In 2010, Agent Calvin Dupree was accused of voting twice via absentee ballots in Stutsman County. But an investigator determined that Dupree had not cast two ballots and that a clerical error caused the confusion.
- In November 2013, a drug bust at the Petro truck stop in Fargo prompted a vehicle chase that involved Agent Scott Voeltz. Supervisors reviewed his actions during the pursuit, which ended with an arrest, and determined that he did not violate any bureau policies. However, the supervisors flagged some areas of concern, including the question of when to end a chase for public safety reasons, and Voeltz was informally counseled.
- In February 2013, BCI and Homeland Security agents searched the home of Towner County Sheriff Vaughn Klier after child pornography was downloaded from the sheriff’s IP address. Initially considered a suspect, the sheriff was cleared of any wrongdoing after his son was found to have child porn and was convicted on a felony charge of possession of certain materials prohibited.
Klier, who has 36 years of law enforcement experience, sent a strongly worded letter to Gov. Jack Dalrymple, U.S. Rep. Kevin Cramer and U.S. Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, detailing his disgust with how the agents disarmed him while on duty and rifled through the contents of his house.
“I don’t personally hold the agents who arrived at my office and house responsible. They are either poorly trained, have poor leadership, or most likely it is both,” the sheriff’s letter said. “They are followers who did what they were told, or their incompetent leaders allowed them to become rogue cops.”
In a recent interview, Klier told The Forum he’s still bitter about what happened. “How they treated me is the same way they’d treat some big drug dealer,” said Klier, who retired from his post in April.
The BCI had an officer from the South Dakota Division of Criminal Investigation look into the sheriff’s complaints, a common practice when the BCI is seeking an independent investigation. In the end, no disciplinary action was taken against the BCI agents involved.
“They’re not going to be held accountable to anyone,” Klier said. “They think they’re above the law.”
Klier was not surprised to learn that one BCI agent has been disciplined in the past six years. “That’s consistent with how BCI is,” he said. “They cover everything up.”
Over a six-year span from 2008 to 2013, the Fargo Police Department conducted 154 internal investigations. In 127 of those cases, officers received discipline, ranging from a letter of consultation to firing.
In a department of 149 officers, it works out to about 85 disciplinary actions per 100 officers. Comparatively, if the BCI had 100 agents, there would be about two disciplinary actions per 100 agents.
In Fargo, an officer who violates department policies, even relatively minor ones such as missing a court date or not showing up for work, can be disciplined. At the BCI, Carlson said minor offenses are handled through counseling sessions with supervisors and don’t result in disciplinary action.
Carlson said BCI agents, who must have at least five years of experience as an officer, generally have more autonomy than officers in a city police department. He believes there’s no need to increase discipline or to heighten the supervision of agents, who report to him, a deputy director, two chief agents and two field supervisors.
“I just believe we hire experienced officers that take their job very seriously,” said Carlson, who’s led the bureau for close to four years. “They’re not rookies, so they don’t make those rookie mistakes.”
The difference between the number of disciplinary actions at the BCI and that of the Fargo Police Department is stark. But the distinctions are less dramatic when comparing the BCI with other state crime bureaus in the region, which fill similar roles, such as helping law enforcement agencies with major cases and cracking down on drug dealing.
- The South Dakota Division of Criminal Investigation has 51 agents. During the past six years, nine internal investigations led to the firings of four agents and the transfer of another, said South Dakota DCI spokeswoman Sara Rabern.
- The Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension employs 61 agents and sworn supervisory personnel, plus 271 support staff. Among agents and all other staff, there have been 31 internal investigations, 12 of which resulted in discipline, in the past six years, according to BCA spokeswoman Jill Oliveira, who said the bureau did not have a specific count of how many agents were disciplined in that timeframe.
- The Montana Division of Criminal Investigation, which has 41 agents, has conducted no internal investigations into any of its employees in the past six years.
“We credit our extensive screening during the application process for new hires that has positively impacted the quality of people we hire,” Montana DCI spokesman John Barnes said in an email.
‘The right thing’
Stenehjem said the North Dakota BCI investigates all credible complaints against its agents. But ultimately, the bureau strives to have no officers disciplined, he said.
“You do that by making sure that you’re hiring people who are the best from the beginning and then adequately training them,” he said. “Our training for our agents is perhaps at the top of the nation.”
In contrast, Kraus-Parr, a Democrat challenging Stenehjem, believes BCI agents need better training and more supervision.
“I think you need to set expectations, and then if those expectations aren’t met, actually do an internal investigation and have consequences for when those rules are not followed,” she said.
Kraus-Parr and others, including Fargo police Chief Keith Ternes and managers at West Acres, have criticized the BCI over its role in the June 17 chase inside the bustling mall, which involved plainclothes officers with guns drawn pursuing Kendall Feist, a 33-year-old Bismarck man, and arresting him on felony charges.
In response to public scrutiny, the BCI issued a report critiquing the chase and noted ways the bureau could have better handled the situation, but no disciplinary action was taken.
There has also been no discipline in a Dickey County case involving a BCI agent’s seizure of a reportedly stolen payloader in Forbes on May 22.
In that case, a judge has ordered that a proposed contempt order be drafted that would require Agent Arnie Rummel and the state to pay the payloader’s owner more than $48,000 after giving the machine away without the court’s permission.
“Their actions were not in compliance with the court,” the owner’s attorney, Mark Friese, said earlier this month. “They’re also inconsistent with my experience in 20 years of working with experienced law enforcement. This is inexplicable.”
The Attorney General’s Office has said it will appeal the matter.
“I think the agent did the right thing,” Stenehjem said. “I mean, the guy had a payloader that belonged to somebody else.”