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Dave Roepke, Published August 17 2009

Fargo police chief issues warning on discipline

Due to the public airing of internal police business, “the clock is ticking” as to how long the department’s disciplinary matters will stay confidential, Fargo Police Chief Keith Ternes said in a memo to his staff.

The memo, dated Aug. 6 and obtained via an open-records request, addresses a recent survey of rank-and-file police officers and a subsequent letter from the president of the local lodge of the Fraternal Order of Police criticizing some of Ternes’ reactions to the study.

One issue raised in the letter written by Rick Griffin, a retired Fargo officer who is the lodge president, was the study’s findings on disciplinary actions. Of the 100 officers who responded, 64 said police administration are not fair in disciplining officers, and 67 percent do not think such matters are handled appropriately and quickly.

In his letter, Griffin said he thought Ternes was not taking the concerns serious enough and asked for a more detailed survey or analysis of the problem areas identified in the study.

Ternes said on Thursday that his “ticking-clock” comment referred to the possibility that complaints about the department’s disciplinary process might prompt calls for an outside review of those complaints, such as the civilian review boards used in some large cities.

The chief said neither he nor officers in the department would welcome that development.

“I certainly don’t think that it is necessary. I think we’re more than capable of policing ourselves,” he said.

Asked to comment on the Ternes memo, including a specific question about the chief’s remarks on disciplinary matters, Griffin responded with another letter to The Forum.

In that letter, Griffin said he was glad to see that the chief is addressing issues raised in the study. “I feel this is the beginning of the process and I am asking our members to provide our support to” Ternes. He didn’t respond to a message seeking further comment.

Mayor Dennis Walaker, whose portfolio of issues as a commissioner includes police, said he agrees with Ternes that the disciplinary process should remain in-house.

Walaker said he knew of no one publicly pushing for an outside review of police personnel investigations.

The comments about the Office of Professional Standards, which investigates complaints about officers, came at the end of a four-page letter. Though he refers to confidentiality, disciplinary matters are open to the public after they are settled.

The chief said he thinks some officers have an inaccurate view of how discipline works in his department and think that he has “this big hammer that I get a kick out of swinging from time to time.”

“That’s just not even close to being true,” Ternes said. “There’s a process that’s followed.”

Here’s how it works: A professional standards sergeant investigates all complaints, after which the chief reviews the investigation to determine whether the behavior was within department policy. If not, the officer’s supervisor then recommends a punishment. That suggestion is reviewed by a captain and then finalized by Ternes.

Ternes wrote earlier in the memo that the department is setting up a group of sergeants and officers to sort through anonymous suggestions on how to deal with issues raised by the survey, including what he refers to as a “perceived lack of fairness in matters regarding the discipline of officers.”

That was not in response to the police lodge’s letter, Ternes said.

The survey conducted by Carol Archbold, an associate professor and criminal justice graduate director at North Dakota State University, was by no means all negative. Archbold said she would be happy with the report if she was the police chief, and Walaker’s pledged his support.

“I didn’t find it to be alarming whatsoever,” the mayor said.

Readers can reach Forum reporter Dave Roepke at (701) 241-5535