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Brittany Lawonn, Published July 22 2009

Fargo police survey reveals officers want more say but are happy in their work

Three out of four Fargo police officers working the front lines don’t believe their input matters to administrators, according to a survey of 100 officers in the department.

The survey also reveals differing opinions in the ranks when it comes to discipline and promotions, with the majority of officers responding that neither is conducted fairly.

At the same time, 71 percent of officers agreed overall working conditions are favorable and 80 percent believe they are adequately paid, according to survey results obtained by The Forum.

Police Chief Keith Ternes said he is not surprised by results of the survey conducted by Carol Archbold, an associate professor and criminal justice graduate director at North Dakota State University.

The survey provides the first public glimpse into Ternes’ command of the 137-employee department since he took office in April 2006.

Ternes, who welcomed the internal survey after being approached about it, said he is working to improve communication within the unit, adding that he is in charge of setting the course for the department.

“I don’t think that we’re in any type of precarious or critical stage that can’t be overcome with a little bit more dialogue and a little bit more understanding, maybe on both sides,” Ternes said.

He added he believes the department’s morale is “pretty good” and the survey reflects that.

“I’m not going to ignore it, but … I’m not surprised that the deficiency is the perception of administration,” he said. “Your employees are never going to agree with every decision that you make.”

Mayor Dennis Walaker said he has reviewed the survey and did not see anything that alarmed him.

“(Ternes) has my full backing,” Walaker said. “I could not be happier with the police chief we have today.”

100 officers responded

One hundred of 101 officers responded to the 70-plus questions posed to them. Supervisors did not participate.

Archbold, who has studied hundreds of police agencies, said she found no concerns from the results.

“If I was a chief, I would be happy to get that report,” she said, adding Fargo is in good shape compared to others its size.

Nearly all officers believe they have a good rapport with residents and adequate equipment to perform their jobs.

But officers appear to have concerns with disciplinary action within the department, with more than half disagreeing with how it is handled. Sixty-four percent do not believe the administration is fair regarding discipline, and 67 percent do not believe such matters are handled quickly and appropriately.

Anyone on the receiving end might feel that way, Ternes said.

“I think they don’t like the high level of accountability that they’re held to and the scrutiny that goes with that,” he said. “I’m not in this particular job to be the most popular police chief.”

Ternes gave an example of his strong stance, saying in the past year three officers were involved in traffic crashes while on duty and were all ticketed after investigations found them to be at fault.

“Five years ago – unheard of, absolutely unheard of,” Ternes said.

Chet Decker, a former officer with the department, said he disagreed with Ternes’ strategy on discipline, saying he thinks Ternes doled out unreasonably severe punishments for violations that did not affect public safety.

“The administration even gets involved in small, personal squabbles in the ranks and conducts formal investigations on even simple locker room arguments, for example,” said Decker, who spent about five years with the department and left for a position in Washington.

Ternes said Decker was involved in a confrontation with another officer that was about to get physical and was not something he considered trivial.

Decker was suspended for two days without pay.

Complaints against officers are either sustained – meaning an officer was found to have done something wrong – or dismissed, and can vary from discourtesy to using excessive force.

The percentage of sustained complaints against officers during Ternes’ tenure as chief has consistently been above 74 percent. Last year, 26 complaints were sustained out of the 32 lodged.

That’s a much higher rate than in most departments, Archbold said.

Sixty-two percent of complaints were sustained during former Chief Chris Magnus’ last year with the force in 2005.

A selection committee unanimously named Ternes police chief in April 2006. At the time, then-Mayor Bruce Furness called Ternes a “patrol officer’s chief,” saying he displayed that mentality by meeting with the officers to discuss their concerns.

The chief now meets with an employee advisory group and sets up random meetings with employees from time to time to meet for an hour.

Former officer Todd Aannerud said he did not think Ternes was approachable and thought there was a “non-caring attitude from administrators” during his eight years with the department as a patrol officer.

Aannerud said his little contact with Ternes was one of the reasons he decided to leave for a federal job in Alaska.

“He’ll only talk to you if he absolutely wants something from you,” Aannerud said, adding that he did not feel acknowledged when he returned from deployment in Iraq. “Ternes gave me the motivation to look elsewhere.”

Fargo Police Department staffing is down by about 20 officers, with training ongoing for new hires. The turnover rate is low, Ternes said, and he does not see an environment in the department that would make officers leave.

Ternes added that he believed Aannerud “was a subpar officer who did the bare minimum,” citing a January 2005 incident with the officer in which an older woman was involved in an accident and Aannerud would not let her warm up in his squad car.

Aannerud received a letter of reprimand for the incident.

Some other findings

A majority of officers responding to the survey disagreed when asked if supervisors are promoted on the basis of their ability.

Sixty-six percent of officers disagreed with that statement, but Ternes said he believes that number might change now that changes have been made to the promotions system.

The system now involves an external board of individuals conducting interviews. The process was altered after concerns were voiced that it was biased and what some people might call a “good ol’ boys network,” Ternes said.

Aannerud said he believes such a network began under Magnus.

“Magnus promoted ‘yes men,’ ” Aannerud said. “Basically Ternes just continued on with that … and now Ternes has nothing but ‘yes men.’ ”

Ternes disagreed, saying changes have been made to combat any “misperception that bias still existed.” He added that he and Magnus often disagreed and his administrators often disagree with him. Magnus did not respond to an e-mail seeking comment.

Other observations made in the survey include:

Ternes said he wasn’t surprised by that finding.

“I don’t think having an extraordinary amount of employee input into some of those things is fairly appropriate,” Ternes said.

Making policy and procedure decisions has to be his responsibility, he said.

“There can only be one police chief,” Ternes said.


Readers can reach Forum reporter Brittany Lawonn at (701) 241-5541