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Published June 29 2013

Morale at ‘all-time low,’ say some ex-Fargo police officers

FARGO - Morale at the Fargo Police Department has hit an “all-time low” and the organizational culture is “toxic,” according to some exit interviews and comments from officers who recently resigned from the force.

Among those who left the department within the past year are three past winners of its Officer of the Year award: Grant Benjamin, Rachel Jordan and Chris Potter.

Potter, who resigned last summer after working 19 years for the department and helping its School Resource Officer program earn best-in-the-nation honors in 2011, said in an interview last week that while Fargo has a “very good” police department and he doesn’t want to step on toes in the metro area’s close-knit law enforcement community, the work environment had become “very cold and at times even hostile.”

“As a taxpayer now, not as a member of the department, it concerns me that good officers are leaving that department because of the organizational culture and because they don’t feel that their interests are being looked out for,” said Potter, the 2011 Officer of the Year who now works as a campus police officer at North Dakota State University.

Among the criticisms expressed in exit interviews and interviews with The Forum were:

• An inconsistent and unfair disciplinary process.

• A lack of leadership and direction with inconsistent expectations for officers, including whether they’re expected to write a certain number of tickets per month.

• A lack of input and communication between upper administration and line-level sergeants and officers on matters such as the department’s switch to 10-hour shifts in January.

• Promotions and assignments based on politics instead of merit – an assertion Police Chief Keith Ternes strongly rejects.

• Not enough evaluation of department heads and a confusing evaluation process for officers because their geographic beats may have them working different shifts than their supervising sergeant.

The Fargo Police Department has seen a higher number of resignations during the past 18 months than in recent years. Not including retirements, six employees resigned from the department in both 2008 and 2009, seven in 2010 and one in 2011. The number of non-retirement resignations climbed to 10 last year, and there were five through mid-June this year.

Potter’s comments, and those of other officers whose exit interviews The Forum obtained through an open records request, echo the results of a 2009 survey of 100 Fargo police officers that found 75 percent of those working the front lines didn’t believe their input mattered to administrators. Two-thirds disagreed when asked if supervisors are promoted on the basis of their ability, according to the survey conducted by Carol Archbold, an associate professor and criminal justice graduate director at NDSU.

Ternes said at the time that he wasn’t surprised by the survey results and was working to improve communication within the department, which has about 145 sworn officers and 165 total personnel.

But Potter said it didn’t happen.

“As a matter of fact, my feelings on that are I think they’ve taken a few steps even further backwards from that,” he said.

In a 90-minute interview last week, Ternes said that while he hates to lose good officers, he’s not concerned about the number of resignations.

“I think if you look beyond just the raw number and look at the circumstances for why officers have left, I think you’ll find a wide variety of reasons, some of which have been because the individual just simply wasn’t happy here,” he said.

While acknowledging that internal communication is an ongoing challenge in the department as with any large organization, Ternes said improvements have been made since 2009.

As for the negative exit interviews, Ternes suggested the sources should be closely examined. He noted that Potter’s exit interview cited his dissatisfaction with the pay and that Potter was disappointed that he was reassigned and taken out of his role as a school resource officer – in which, Ternes added, he did an “outstanding job.” Officers typically rotate to a different assignment every five or six years, Ternes said.

“I think if you go back and you connect some dots, you’ll find that the officers who expressed some real dissatisfaction, it’s probably because they were held accountable for something or that they just vehemently disagreed or didn’t understand or wouldn’t understand the basis for some of the policy and procedure decisions that we’ve made,” he said.

Potter predicted Ternes would have a “sour grapes” response to the criticism, which he said has been the chief’s response in the past when concerns about management have surfaced, such as in 2009, when Ternes was quoted in a Forum story as referring to one critical ex-employee as “a subpar officer who did the bare minimum.”

“That seems to be the typical response is that, ‘Oh, it’s just sour grapes, they have an ax to grind, whatever,’ ” Potter said. “But you know, when you’re talking more than one or two officers, when you’re talking an entire culture there …”

‘Buddy system’ cited

Former patrol Officer Andreas “Andy” Alt, who submitted his resignation letter May 20, wrote in his exit interview questionnaire that department morale “is at an all-time low.”

“Amongst the mostly decent leadership in the department there are a few that create an unacceptable work environment,” he wrote. “As of today I know of several other officers that have looked elsewhere, because of how they have been treated. There is a deeply engrained ‘buddy-system’ that keeps quality officers from advancing.”

Alt’s resignation letter stated that he had accepted a position with the state Bureau of Criminal Investigation, but a BCI spokeswoman said last week Alt doesn’t work for the bureau, and a listed phone number for him couldn’t be found.

Former officer Chris Redmann, who resigned five days after Alt, said last week that Alt is working in law enforcement, but he couldn’t be more specific. Redmann, now an assistant state’s attorney in Burleigh County, said he would pass on a Forum reporter’s contact information to Alt, but Alt didn’t contact The Forum.

The Forum’s request for records also covered complaints made against officers over the past five years. Those records show Alt received a letter of reprimand in March for using derogatory and offensive language in the presence of a juvenile boy during a citizen ride-along in November 2012, during which Alt also unholstered his duty weapon and drove for a time with it in his hand.

Alt also received a letter of consultation last October for getting into a preventable crash with another vehicle while driving a marked squad car, records state. In the letter, a lieutenant wrote that Alt had demonstrated himself to be “a competent officer” during his two years with the department.

‘Huge distrust’ of brass

Redmann, a licensed attorney hired as a Fargo police officer in September 2011, said the combination of a great job offer in Burleigh County and dissatisfaction with the department prompted his exit.

“I can tell you for certain that morale at the patrol level is not good,” he said.

In his exit interview questionnaire, he also stated that “the ‘double-standard’ and political nature of discipline and promotions have instilled a huge distrust with department command staff.”

Disciplinary records show Redmann received a letter of consultation in June 2012 for leaving his department-issued firearm in the trunk of his squad car at the end of his shift on May 15, 2012. Another officer found the weapon in the trunk two days later.

Ternes noted that Redmann wasn’t happy when his request to practice law in his spare time was denied by the chief, who saw it as a conflict of interest. Redmann said it’s true that Ternes denied his request, but he said that “really had no bearing” on his decision to leave the department.

Discipline still an issue

Benjamin, the department’s Officer of the Year in 2004 and current president of the North Dakota State Lodge of the Fraternal Order of Police, said rank-and-file employees feel like they’re not given a fair shake in the disciplinary process.

Complaints against officers can vary, from being rude to a dispatcher to accidentally discharging a Taser to using excessive force, and they have a variety of outcomes.

Archbold’s 2009 study found that the percentage of sustained complaints against officers during Ternes’ tenure as chief since 2006 had consistently been above 74 percent, which she said was a much higher rate than in most departments.

Of the 28 complaints filed last year that have been resolved, Ternes sustained 20 of them, or 71 percent. Six complaints were not sustained, with two of those deemed policy failures and one that went to mediation. Two officers resigned before their investigations were closed, and one complaint from 2012 is still open.

In the 2009 study, 64 percent of officers said they didn’t believe the administration was fair regarding discipline, and 67 percent didn’t believe such matters were handled quickly and appropriately.

“I think you have an issue that was never addressed,” Benjamin said.

As he did in 2009, Ternes said last week he won’t apologize for the disciplinary process.

“I’ve tried to establish a standard – and it’s a high standard – of accountability when it comes to the Police Department’s employees,” he said. “And as you might expect, there are some employees that either don’t like it or are uncomfortable with having to meet that standard.”

HR: No action needed

Benjamin and Potter both stressed the need for more employee feedback and more in-depth department head evaluations, not just in the Police Department but throughout city government.

City department heads are evaluated annually by City Administrator Pat Zavoral. On Ternes’ most recent evaluation last October, Zavoral gave him an overall “exceptional” rating and the same rating in the category “Communications and Relationship Building.”

“Keith has become more visible in the public and understands the internal concerns of the department,” Zavoral wrote.

Exit interviews are voluntary for city employees, and they’re not required to list their name or department if they fill out the questionnaire. If they do, the questionnaire gets emailed to the appropriate department head, Human Resources Director Jill Minette said.

An exit interview may warrant further review of the department, but that wasn’t the case with the police exit interviews provided to The Forum, Minette said.

“Beyond that conversation with the department head, there wasn’t a need for further action at that time,” she said.

Ternes said that while the department doesn’t have a 360-degree review process with input from employees at all levels, his door is always open and employees often stop by.

“A great majority of them are not the least bit shy to let me know if they’ve got a concern about a particular issue,” he said.

‘At a critical stage’

Benjamin wrote in his exit interview that the lack of communication within the department “is at a critical stage,” adding Ternes is making “monumental” decisions without including his own leadership staff.

For example, when lieutenants announced during a briefing in January that the department was switching to a 10-hour shift schedule, “the sergeants did not know it was happening. They had no clue,” Benjamin said.

Ternes said that’s false.

“There was widespread input on that from a wide variety of people within the field services division. Not everybody agreed with it,” he said. “To say that sergeants were completely oblivious to moving to a 10-hour shift, that’s just simply not true.”

While communication can always improve, Ternes said, he believes progress has been made since the 2009 study. For example, he formed an employee advisory group consisting of eight members representing the department’s various work groups, including a patrol shift representative. The group initially met monthly but now meets every other month, discussing such things as procedural changes and policy clarifications, he said.

“I think it does provide at least a better mechanism of communication,” he said.

Ternes said he also tries to meet one-on-one with department employees on a regular basis to allow them to ask questions and air concerns.

Eval process criticized

Benjamin also took issue with how officers are evaluated, saying the current beat structure based on geographic areas means some don’t work the same shift as their supervising sergeant, creating confusion and more work in the evaluation process.

“Sergeants had to interview other sergeants to find out how you’d been doing,” he said.

Ternes acknowledged that sergeants and patrol officers alike had struggled with the concept. But he said officers were working independent of their supervisor 90 percent of the time anyway, forcing sergeants to rely on the officer’s ticket counts and other statistics to evaluate.

Now, the process is more challenging because instead of looking only at the officer’s stats, the sergeant must look at the crime rate, number of traffic crashes and other measuring sticks in the officer’s area of responsibility, he said.

“You can’t just dig that out of a computer,” Ternes said. “You have to actually go out and talk to people.”

Ternes said the process does require more work for sergeants, but he said it’s also a more meaningful and effective way of evaluating officers.

Benjamin also cited a lack of defined leadership, saying officers are told to write more tickets to raise their citation counts but then hear comments from Ternes that numbers shouldn’t be part of their evaluation.

Ternes said he has tried to get officers to understand that he is more interested in the quality of their work than the quantity, with a focus on problem-solving and public service rather than ticket and arrest counts.

“But there are some officers who come in here and say, you know, I think my sergeant or my supervisor is still putting too much emphasis on that,” he said. “And then, of course, I do my best to get that corrected.”

Not all negative

Not all of the questionnaires obtained by The Forum were negative.

Officer Tara Morris, who resigned in spring 2012 and is now a sergeant and spokeswoman for the Cass County Sheriff’s Office, cited “excellent training opportunities” and a “very professional” department in her exit interview.

“I had a very positive experience,” Morris said Friday, adding she only left for a good job opportunity. “I have nothing bad to say about Fargo P.D.”

Archbold, who did not return messages seeking comment, found in her 2009 survey that 71 percent of officers agreed overall working conditions were favorable and 80 percent believed they were adequately paid.

Officer Larry Heuer, who resigned last July after 25½ years with the department, wrote that he didn’t use his health benefits and would have liked to have some other type of benefit or compensation offered, but he said the career opportunities offered by the department were “great.”

Free to take initiative?

Benjamin, a 19-year veteran who retired from the force in March and now works as the safety coordinator for Swanson Health Products in Fargo, said he had hoped to finish out his career with the department. But back problems forced him to consider retirement, and the department’s inner turmoil convinced him it was the right decision, he said.

“The way things were going, to where you’re not sleeping at night … I faced more stress inside that building, being inside the police department, than out on the street,” he said.

Ternes said Benjamin had “a long, long history of unhappiness” in the department and disagreed with decisions made by Ternes and his predecessor.

Potter, who was hired in October 1993 and was the school resource officer at Fargo South High during the six years before he resigned, said the common theme he hears through his contact with his former department comrades is a “de-policing” of the department in which fear of scrutiny has led to a lack of initiative.

“Because people are so afraid to make a mistake … they basically are just taking the path of least resistance and flying under the radar and really not putting themselves out there so that they aren’t targeted,” he said.

Ternes points to the department’s success in keeping the crime rate low in an ever-growing city as proof employees are free to take initiative “within reason.” The city saw a 3.5 percent increase in the crime rate in 2012, but that came after two years of declines and was still below the five-year average crime rate.

“That comes almost entirely because of the initiative that people throughout the organization are taking,” Ternes said.

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