PIERRE, S.D. -- After admitting to seven accusations of sexual misconduct, a northeast South Dakota sheriff has had his certification revoked by a state commission.
Members of South Dakota’s Law Enforcement Officers Standards and Training Commission on Thursday, Dec. 13, unanimously voted to revoke the certification of Marshall County Sheriff Dale Elsen, who has served as the county’s sheriff since 1983. Elsen at the commission’s hearing admitted to seven accusations of sexual harassment on the job, which ranged from making lewd comments in front of sheriff’s office and county employees, as well as an inmate, to showing and dispersing sexually explicit objects to his deputies.
Investigator Guy DiBenedetto, who investigates claims of officer misconduct throughout the state, testified to commissioners that the seven events occurred within the past few years.
Elsen, a Democrat who was re-elected in November by a 83-17 percent margin, said he suspected the accusations came to light thanks to political intentions. He offered no proof of this claim.
“My feelings are that the people who are complaining have possibly been manipulated to come forward at the same time,” Elsen said.
Still, potential political motivations aside, Elsen admitted to each of the seven accusations and said he believed his behavior was wrong.
With all of the accusations occurring relatively recently, hearing officer Paul Bachand asked Elsen if he engaged in sexual harassment-type behavior at all prior to the seven events described, or “did this just start all-of-a-sudden?”
“This type of activity has gone on in departments, our department, as well,” Elsen said. When pressed if he had personally engaged in this behavior before, Elsen said, “Comments, probably, yes.”
Elsen told commissioners he didn’t “believe (he) had a problem” with sexual harassment in the past, and said his inappropriate behavior reflected that of fellow officers and supervisors he had worked with in his 44 years in law enforcement. He added that officers see “a lot of bad things,” so when “something comes up, something funny is there (at work), you make comments” to lighten the mood.
Brent Kempema, who works for the Office of Attorney General, followed by asking, “So, a woman walks past and you make unsolicited comments about her appearance. How does that relate to work?”
“I think just because I saw her walk by,” Elsen replied.
Since Elsen was first questioned about his workplace conduct earlier this year, he organized sexual harassment training for his staff. Elsen told commissioners he plans to have such training every year for employees.
Hughes County Sheriff and Commissioner Michael Leidholt asked Elsen, ““It didn’t occur to you that these comments were inappropriate, that you were acting inappropriately, even without training?”
“It did,” Elsen said, adding that he reconsidered comments he made to or about female colleagues, in particular. Elsen said he has “buckled down” on his behavior, especially in a time of heightened public awareness of workplace sexual harassment and the rise of the Me Too movement -- a cause which Elsen said he supports.
He added that in his time as sheriff, only once did a female approach him about his workplace conduct, asking him not to use of swear words. Kempema then refuted that subordinate employees may not feel comfortable confronting their boss about his or her inappropriate conduct.
Four Marshall County commissioners attended the hearing in solidarity with Elsen, and several wrote letters to the commission supporting him. Still, though, the commissioners ultimately voted unanimously to revoke Elsen’s certification.
As Elsen said earlier in his hearing, “This is a new time and place.”