Retiring Fargo chief who took office during dark days remembered for steady leadership, community policing
FARGO — When Fargo Police Chief David Todd first stepped in as the leader of North Dakota’s largest police force, he immediately faced challenges in a dark time.
Just months earlier, Lt. Jeff Skuza took his own life after supervisors recommended he lose his job for covering up an accidental Taser discharge. Dozens of coworkers were coming forward to express concerns about morale problems within the agency.
Then former Chief Keith Ternes stepped down, making way for the city to appoint Todd as the interim chief in November 2014 and later the long-term chief.
Todd told The Forum he spent a lot of time with his wife talking about whether he should take the position.
“I’ll never forget she said, ‘I want to be the chief’s wife,’” he said. “She wasn’t saying that because there’s anything in it for her. She was saying that because she knew that I really cared about the people down here, and that I would do whatever it took to get us through that dark period and get us to a better place as a department.”
Almost six years later, Todd, who retires Friday, July 31, has implemented changes that have transformed the department.
He has designed patrol beats so officers are dedicated to certain areas of the city, helping them become more familiar with residents instead of constantly moving around to different locations. Community outreach programs have become the norm.
“When I became the chief, I wanted to change the culture internally, and that was through a lot of listening sessions, a lot of collaborative ideas on how we could move forward as a department,” he said. “It was also important to change the culture externally."
Even something as simple as asking officers to smile when interacting with residents seems to have made a difference, Mayor Tim Mahoney said.
“I think a lot of people saw him as a compassionate leader,” Mahoney said. “I think what we saw in him is that type of leadership where he tried to bring us to a new level in policing.”
Todd’s tenure as chief had its share of challenges — the fatal shooting of an officer during a domestic violence call, the slaying of a mother as her baby was taken from her womb, the global coronavirus pandemic, and protests that criticized his leadership and sparked a downtown riot.
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Still, he said he was grateful to the community and officers for allowing him to be the chief.
"I think it was probably the honor of my professional life," he said.
'I kind of got hooked'
Todd almost took a different career path. The Fargo native went to college to pursue medicine, noting his father was a doctor.
“After about a year, I recognized that’s not what was interesting to me,” he said.
Then he went on several ride-alongs with officers. “I kind of got hooked and thought, ‘Wow, that really interests me. I could really see myself doing that job,’” he said.
He joined the Fargo Police Department as a patrol officer in 1987. Though he worked in different areas, his favorite, he said, was being a downtown resource officer, a position he and another officer started in the 1990s.
Todd said he wanted a position that would allow him to build relationships with residents and find long-term solutions, instead of just going call to call.
“You use those relationships to have communications and solve problems together,” he said. “That’s really satisfying.”
Other chiefs have used community policing, but Todd said he wanted to take it to the next level. He emphasized intelligence policing to analyze statistics, find out who may be committing crimes and pursue criminals.
Mahoney praised Todd’s efforts to improve not only communication within the department but also with other law enforcement agencies around the state, since crime can be similar in other areas of North Dakota.
Todd's other efforts included outreach to residents through events and programs for at-risk youth, teaching children not to be afraid of officers and to seek help. The programs aim to keep children busy, provide mentors to kids and keep them out of trouble.
“We don’t want officers to just simply be in a uniform and unapproachable,” said Deputy Chief Ross Renner , who has worked with Todd for 24 years and will serve as interim chief. “The uniform is part of the job. It’s not part of the person.”
After officers raised concerns about the previous administration, Todd increased morale within the department by spending time listening and supporting staff, Renner said. Steady and genuine leadership helped the department get through hard times, he added.
Todd said he sought ways to use education-based discipline more often than suspensions and firings. “When someone makes a mistake, how can the whole department learn from that in a positive way?” Todd asked.
The department now has a wellness committee that looks for ways to keep officers physically, mentally and emotionally healthy. The department also has a gym, a lunch room with healthy options, access to chaplains and programs to help officers who deal with traumatic situations.
One of those situations that hit the community hard was the shooting death of Officer Jason Moszer in February 2016. Despite the tragedy, it drew the department closer together, Todd said.
Recent protests in Fargo calling for police reform have also tested the department, especially when they turned violent on May 30. Some have called for Todd to be fired after controversies emerged from the protests. Demonstrators have even said they plan to rally outside police headquarters on Friday, his last day on the job.
Todd said he agrees justice needs to be served to the Minneapolis police officers involved in the death of George Floyd. He defended the actions of Fargo officers during the downtown riot, saying residents expected the agency to keep the community safe.
“For the people who peacefully protested for that, I’m with you,” he said. “For the people who picked up rocks and bricks and threw them at our officers, for the people who broke into businesses and looted those businesses and broke out windows indiscriminately, you’re criminals.”
Todd has brought the department a long way, Mahoney said, noting that some programs have gone farther than the mayor ever expected.
Mahoney pointed to Todd’s push to start a police academy, which instructed its first class this year. That has helped fill job openings on the force quickly, the mayor said.
Mahoney said he will miss how calm Todd remains during stressful situations, even when calls come in the middle of the night. He described the chief as a progressive leader who took the time to explain policy.
“The message he delivers is what he truly believes in the aspect of community care,” Renner said of Todd. “There’s not a lot of guessing about who he is or what his values are.”
Todd said he's felt blessed to work with the people of the Fargo Police Department, calling them committed and altruistic.
“They want what’s best for the community and the department,” he said. “When a leader is able to give that vision and then step back and let the members of the department run with that vision and even make it better than I thought it could be, all you can think of is, ‘How lucky am I?’”