Exit interviews point to low morale in Fargo police
"I don't hate the Fargo Police Department, I hate the toxic environment," says former FPD officer
FARGO — WDAY News Reporter Kevin Wallevand has spent weeks speaking with current and former Fargo Police Department officers. Now, after a request for public documents, WDAY News found the data and the officer's concerns are causing alarm.
On top of the staffing issues faced by hospitals and schools , the Fargo Police Department is experiencing what one police officer described as a "hemorrhaging from the inside."
According to documents received through a public records request, in 2021 alone, 25 officers left the department.
According to two employee exit interviews, 33 people have left the department in the last 14 months.
West Fargo and Moorhead police both tell WDAY News their openings fluctuate, but average at around five or six.
"The vast amount of openings nationwide, ... the challenge really is finding a department that's fully staffed, because they don't really exist," said Fargo Police Chief Dave Zibolski.
Zibolski, who's been in Fargo a year and a half, says what Fargo is witnessing is a problem nationwide. Officers want out.
"Nationally, there was some research done ... (from 2019 -2020) and the recruitment pool is down 5%, the retirements are up 45%, and resignations are up 18% ... and they're actually in the process of doing a new survey because they expect the numbers to continue to go up," Zibolski said. "It tells me that the policing environment has gotten tougher — not just from the job — but from finding people who want to be cops."
Exit interviews from those who retired or left for a new job say the situation has become a public safety issue.
In the words of one exit interview: "The Fargo Police Department is in crisis, and Chief Zibolski will not admit it."
A letter sent to city leaders read:
"Chief Zibolski and his appointed administration are the main reason behind so many departures. He needs to open his eyes and ears and deal with his mistakes and poor leadership before this city has no one willing to protect it." the former officer wrote.
From multiple exit interviews, there was criticism of the chief.
"Chief Zibolski believed that the FPD were a bunch of bumpkins and that he was here to 'fix' us," the former officer wrote.
"If we're all pulling the rope in the same direction, that's a good team. You know, if I come to work everyday and I have to sit next to someone who — for whatever reason — is commiserating or negative, that starts to have an adverse effect," Zibolski said.
From the multiple exit interviews we studied, a common thread:
"Loyal officers were confused, worn out and defeated," wrote one officer.
Others who served in police administration were positive about the police force.
"Keep supporting the police department in this difficult time. Add more officers," said one document.
Indeed, adding more officers is a challenge. WDAY News received a document indicating just seven Fargo police officers were on a recent day shift for the whole city. Usually that number is at least a dozen — they are that short.
Calls for service are averaging 211 a day. In recent weeks, two Fargo cops went to Cass County for work, one has gone to Clay County, and one to West Fargo.
As one officer wrote in his exit interview, "The police officer position requires sacrifices I would rather not make in the future (i.e. shift work, on-call, huge workload, poor administration). Although I love helping the community, the sacrifices of family time, undue stress and frustration aren't healthy long term."
Another wrote: "I don't hate the Fargo Police Department, but I do hate the toxic environment that exists within it."
Coming up on Monday, Jan. 17, WDAY News investigates claims from many police officers who are leaving that mental health and cries for help are not being heard by leaders, making it hard for even veterans to stick around.
WDAY NEWS spoke with several Fargo police officers who are still acitve and those who recently left. None wanted to go on camera for fear of retaliation.