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Fargo leaders clash at fiery meeting on police staffing, morale

"Morale is good, but it is also strained by the staffing issues we're struggling with right now," Fargo Police Chief David Zibolski said.

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Fargo Police Deputy Chief Joe Anderson, Captain George Vinson, Captain Chris Helmick and Assistant Chief Travis Stefonowicz look over notes during a meeting in the City Commission Chambers at Fargo City Hall on Tuesday, Jan. 18, 2022.
David Samson / The Forum
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FARGO — Fargo Police Chief David Zibolski and other police officials addressed staffing and morale concerns during a heated informational meeting of the Fargo City Commission Tuesday morning, Jan. 18, that featured harsh exchanges between members of the commission.

Fargo Mayor Tim Mahoney organized the meeting after several media outlets reported on officer vacancies the police department experienced in the last year or so.

A WDAY-TV report that aired on Friday, Jan. 14, and also appeared on InForum.com found 25 officers left the police department in 2021. The report noted that, according to exit interviews, more than 30 people — a combination of officers and civilians — left the department in the last 14 months. Some officers who left cited department leadership as a reason for leaving.

At Tuesday's meeting, Commissioner David Piepkorn called the vacancies and reports that some daytime police shifts have been at half-strength "alarming" before aiming some frank words at Mahoney — who holds the police portfolio on the commission — for not raising an alarm.

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Commissioner Dave Piepkorn raises questions during the Fargo Police Department Operational Update meeting in the City Commission Chambers at Fargo City Hall on Tuesday, Jan. 18, 2022.
David Samson/The Forum

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"You weren't doing your job," Piekpkorn told Mahoney.

"We are safe in our community and will remain safe," Mahoney said, noting he called Tuesday's meeting to hear what police officials had to say about the situation.

Mahoney said the current vacancy of sworn officers in Fargo, which stands at 20, represents about 10% of the sworn officer force.

That percentage, Mahoney added, is similar to vacancy rates past police chiefs in Fargo faced.

Zibolski said at a press conference following the meeting that the Cass County Sheriff's Department is down 24 officers, or 11% of its force, and officer numbers at the West Fargo Police Department are down about 9%.

He added that one survey of police departments around the country found an average vacancy rate of sworn officers of about 7%.

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Fargo Police Department Chief David Zibolski addresses issues during a meeting in the City Commission Chambers at Fargo City Hall on Tuesday, Jan. 18, 2022.
David Samson/The Forum

Regarding recent media reports, Zibolski said he would have liked the opportunity to provide more context to the information released, noting when it came to recent exit interviews a large percentage reflected positively on the police department, though he acknowledged that a smaller number of interviews contained vocal criticism.

"Morale is good, but it is also strained by the staffing issues we're struggling with right now," Zibolski said.

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Piepkorn told Zibolski the police department should have alerted commissioners to the staffing problem so the commission could provide assistance.

Zibolski said he didn't think to notify the commission because, in his view, there is nothing the commission can do to help. It's something that has to be managed day to day by department leaders, he added.

Commissioner Tony Gehrig said he plans to make a motion at a future commission meeting that would call for police officials to make a contract with city administration agreeing to evaluate the police department and come up with workable solutions to problems that get identified.

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Commissioner Tony Gehrig speaks during a meeting in the City Commission Chambers at Fargo City Hall on Tuesday, Jan. 18, 2022.
David Samson/The Forum

If defined problems aren't fixed, Gehrig said, a decision will have to be made: "Either we stick with the chief that we have, or we don't."

Zibolksi, who has been chief for about a year and a half, said earlier that Fargo is experiencing what police departments across the country are going through and that officers in many places are leaving.

Commissioner John Strand said Tuesday a number of city departments are seeing high vacancy rates. One reason commissioners recently passed a $1,000 bonus for city employees was to let them know they are appreciated, he added.

Also during Tuesday's meeting, Police Capt. George Vinson told commissioners that recently purchased body cameras have proven valuable in a number of ways.

He said in nine situations where citizens claimed bad use of force, the cameras were able to show that the claims in every case were fabricated.

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Also, Vinson said, in two other cases in which individuals claimed they were assaulted by officers, camera footage refuted the allegations.

Mahoney said police are doing a good job during a tough time, and he encouraged residents to show their appreciation when encountering officers.

"Give 'em a high-five," Mahoney said.

I'm a reporter and a photographer and sometimes I create videos to go with my stories.

I graduated from Minnesota State University Moorhead and in my time with The Forum I have covered a number of beats, from cops and courts to business and education.

I've also written about UFOs, ghosts, dinosaur bones and the planet Pluto.

You may reach me by phone at 701-241-5555, or by email at dolson@forumcomm.com
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