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Fargo police review panel tells commissioners wounds will take time to heal

FARGO - A panel convened to review morale in the Police Department told city commissioners Monday that it will take time for trust to be regained and emotional wounds to heal.

Brian Berg, chairman of the Police Review Committee, presents their findings about former police chief Keith Ternes' administration to the Fargo City Commission on Monday, Nov. 24, 2014."We didn't get here overnight,†he said. Michael Vosburg / Forum Photo Editor

FARGO – A panel convened to review morale in the Police Department told city commissioners Monday that it will take time for trust to be regained and emotional wounds to heal.

“You didn’t get here overnight,” said panel Chairman Brian Berg. “This has been a process that has taken place. And if anybody thinks that this is just going to turn around and all is going to be just roses, it’s not.”

By “here” he and the panel meant a department of overworked officers unhappy at the perceived lack of support by their commanders.

It’s gotten so bad that word has gotten around and police academies in the region are telling recruits they don’t want to work for the Fargo Police Department, said panel member Jane Pettinger.

The panel was created two months ago in the wake of police Lt. Jeff Skuza’s March suicide, which his widow and others blamed on then-Chief Keith Ternes’ unnecessarily long disciplinary process. But panel members were given a broad mission and they looked at everything from the manpower shortage to discipline to leadership style.


One panel member, former state Highway Patrol Superintendent James Prochniak, said he had been prepared to recommend the chief, who he called an “honorable” man, to step down but Ternes already did that two weeks ago.

Ternes was replaced by Deputy Chief David Todd, who panel members credited with a renewed optimism within the department.

Raw emotions

In presenting their recommendations, panel members said they spoke with dozens of officers of various ranks and were impressed with the officers’ passion and candor.

“When you have police officers breaking down in the room where you interview them, you know how important it was,” Berg told the commission.

Pettinger suggested that so much was demanded of the officers that their humanity seemed to have been lost. “It breaks my heart.”

Toward a better PD

Panel members’ recommendations covered familiar topics such as communication – some officers complained that Ternes favored emails over face-to-face communication – and discipline – senior city officials outside of the department should be involved to balance out disciplinary staff within the department.


Other recommendations called for more diversity and better work-life balance.

Berg said the force has lots of women officers, but none are at the sergeant level or above.

Pettinger said commanders need to recognize that work doesn’t always come first in this day and age; the department needs to recognize that officers have families they need to be with.

Several panel members called on the department to expedite hiring.

Todd said he has 18 officers who are training or on family leave or not available for other reasons and 11 vacancies that he’s trying to fill in a department of 170. But he can only hire seven at a time because that’s the maximum size of a training class, he said.

After the panel made its presentation, Mayor Dennis Walaker expressed regret that the poor morale in the department happened under his watch, noting that he had heard rumors in the past.

“There’s only one direction we can go, that’s up,” he concluded. “If we blow this opportunity something’s wrong.”



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Fargo Mayor Dennis Walker, center, adresses the Police Review Committee's findings of former police chief Keith Ternes' administration Monday, Nov. 24, 2014, with council members Dr. Tim Mahoney and Melissa Sobolik. Michael Vosburg / Forum Photo Editor

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