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Published November 01 2012

Facebook photo of seized cash gets Fargo detective suspended

FARGO – A Fargo police detective with a history of disciplinary actions was suspended for two days without pay in August for posting a photo of cash seized in a drug investigation on Facebook, police records show.

According to documents obtained by The Forum via an open records request:

Detective Bret Witte, a narcotics investigator, took the photo on June 11 with his personal cellphone and posted it on his personal Facebook account with the caption, “Cash seizure from search warrant today. Crime didn’t pay today did it buddy?”

The next day, a Fargo police sergeant who noticed the Facebook post emailed it to the head of the department’s narcotics unit, Sgt. Mat Sanders.

Sanders, who was vacationing in Minneapolis at the time, initially believed the email was interdepartmental, the investigative report states.

When Sanders returned to work on June 14, he realized the photo was posted on Witte’s Facebook account and ordered Witte to remove it, which he did immediately.

A complaint was filed with the Office of Professional Standards alleging that Witte violated department policy by disseminating images of official police business and failing to conform to work standards for his position.

Investigations Lt. Joel Vettel recommended the two-day suspension in a July 24 memo to Deputy Chief Pat Claus.

“This act by Officer Witte put the professional reputation of the Fargo Police Department in jeopardy,” Vettel wrote. “His disregard for department policy concerning dissemination of sensitive material had the potential to jeopardize the prosecution of an active criminal case.”

Witte’s past disciplinary issues were factors in Vettel’s recommendation, the memo shows.

Witte received a letter of reprimand in April for leaving his unmarked police car unlocked, resulting in the theft of several pieces of department-issued equipment, including a bulletproof vest, handcuffs, a Taser, a knife, a handheld police radio and two loaded ammunition clips for a handgun.

Vettel also noted in the memo that Witte was disciplined in December 2010 for conducting a controlled drug buy without backup officers, putting himself and the confidential informant at greater risk.

“Although the policies that were violated were different, the underlying problem of poor decision making is the common theme in each of these incidents,” Vettel wrote.

While it’s not mentioned in Vettel’s memo, Witte also lost 15 days without pay in 2002 after admitting to supervisors he had sexual relations in his squad car with an 18-year-old woman he was dating at the time.

Witte, in a letter responding to the recommended discipline for the Facebook post, apologized to Police Chief Keith Ternes, explaining that his intent was “to reflect a positive accomplishment and nothing more.”

Witte wrote that while he didn’t intend to violate the policy, “I understand ignorance is not an excuse.”

“I’m sorry I let you down and I will work harder to avoid future mistakes,” he wrote.

According to the investigative report by internal affairs Sgt. Mike Mitchell, Witte said that at the time he posted the photo, he didn’t realize it violated policy. But the report notes that Witte had participated in a staff meeting just a month earlier in which Claus reviewed updated department policies, including the policy on dissemination of information.

During the May 10 meeting, Claus relayed to staff that, while it’s not the preferred method, personnel cellphones can be used when a department camera isn’t available. Claus “was specific that the images taken are to be treated as official police business,” the report states.

Witte, when asked about the policy review meeting, said he didn’t recall specifics, the report states. He acknowledged he had initialed the policy distribution log and agreed to follow the policies.

On June 11, Witte and other narcotics detectives seized a large sum of cash and about half a pound of marijuana while executing a search warrant in south Fargo. The items were transported to police headquarters.

While sitting at his desk, Witte took a photo of the seized cash with his camera phone, he explained in a June 22 letter to Mitchell.

“Since there was no specific identifying information, I didn’t believe I was violating any policy regarding release of information,” Witte wrote, adding that his Facebook profile status is restricted to private so only friends can see his posts and pictures.

“Hindsight being 20/20, I regret posting the picture and I am embarrassed this led to a formal complaint,” he wrote.

Witte served his suspension on Aug. 10 and 13.

In addition, Ternes ordered Witte to review and re-familiarize himself with all department policies.

“You must recognize that any future violations of department policy may result in discipline up to and including the termination of your employment,” Ternes wrote in the Aug. 1 disciplinary order.

Vettel said Ternes was not available for comment Thursday. Witte did not return a phone message seeking comment.


Readers can reach Forum reporter Mike Nowatzki at (701) 241-5528