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Published August 31 2013

When police work turns personal: Local agencies say cases of favoritism, abuse of position taken seriously

FARGO - One policeman convinced his fellow officers not to bust a booze party because he knew it could jeopardize a scholarship for one of the minors involved.

Another officer working the scene of a traffic accident gave an injured person the business card of the chiropractic clinic where she worked a second job.

Yet another member of the Fargo Police Department accessed official police reports to learn about a narcotics investigation involving a family member.

Disciplinary records dating back to 2008, obtained by The Forum through an open records request from metro-area law enforcement agencies, don’t contain an abundance of cases where the personal interests of police interfered with their professional duties.

But that line occasionally is crossed, and local law enforcement officials say such incidents are taken seriously and handled swiftly.

“Those things we take very serious down here, and they are investigated as soon as they come to light,” said Fargo police Sgt. Mike Mitchell, who oversees the department’s internal affairs office, known as the Office of Professional Standards.

‘We can’t allow that’

A Forum review of personnel complaints filed since 2008 with the Fargo, Moorhead and West Fargo police departments and the Cass County and Clay County sheriff’s offices showed disciplinary action for such behavior ranged from letters of consultation to multiple-day suspensions.

Mitchell said he couldn’t recall a situation in which a Fargo police officer was fired for allowing personal interests to get in the way of the job.

“That doesn’t mean it couldn’t happen based on the severity of it,” he said.

In one case, an officer resigned before the investigation was completed and any disciplinary action could be taken. According to the complaint, she had accessed an official police report in July 2012 to learn about the arrest of her friend in a domestic violence incident, then used the information in an email to an assistant Cass County state’s attorney to try to sway prosecution of the case.

Fargo Police Chief Keith Ternes sustained the complaint, finding that the officer violated policies related to dissemination of information and use of position. But the officer resigned before Ternes released his findings, and the file was closed.

In another case from last year, an office supervisor – not an officer – was disciplined for accessing an official police report to learn about a narcotics investigation involving a family member and printing a copy of the report, according to a complaint dated May 4, 2012.

The report had been locked by the deputy police chief, “however the report was still accessed for personal reasons which is outside of department policy,” said the disciplinary determination, which was a letter of reprimand for unsatisfactory performance and dissemination of information.

Mitchell said that “certainly the human element comes into play” in such a case, and one can’t help but feel sorry for the employee.

“But from a professional standpoint, we can’t even allow that to interfere with our decision making,” he said.

Issues of favoritism

Mitchell said part of the officer training program involves discussing the need to avoid acting on personal bias or showing favoritism to family, friends and co-workers.

Officers also must learn the department’s policies on accepting gifts, gratuities, bribes and rewards, which are more stringent than the city’s general policies, Mitchell said. For example, he said, officers should understand why they can’t accept a free meal from a restaurant.

“We can’t do that because then there’s that potential down the road that could lead to an integrity issue, or it could lead to a relationship where there’s an expectation,” he said.

In one example of favoritism, a Cass County deputy received a written reprimand for calling a truck driver in the Kindred area and letting him know the “boys,” meaning deputies, would be in the Kindred/

Davenport area doing truck regulatory enforcement.

The deputy told the trucker to call or text whomever he wanted to let people know the deputies were in the area, according to the complaint received last October.

The reprimand stated that the deputy “recognizes the negative position he put himself and the Sheriff’s Office in by alerting certain individuals of truck regulatory enforcement.”

In another example, a Fargo sergeant and officer both received letters of reprimand in 2008 for not busting a party where minors had been drinking alcohol. The officer, who took the lead role at the scene, knew one of the minors.

“You made the decision you were not going to take enforcement action against one particular individual because of your relationship to him and his family and the knowledge that enforcement may affect his scholarship situation,” the reprimand stated.

The sergeant was reprimanded because, after later learning that the officer’s relationship to the partygoers was a factor in not pursuing the bust, the sergeant “did no further follow-up or investigation” of his own, the reprimand stated. Complaints against three other officers involved were not sustained.

A Fargo police officer received a letter of consultation on Nov. 8, 2012, for giving the business card of a chiropractic clinic where she worked a second job to a citizen injured in a motor vehicle crash. The officer was investigating the crash at the time of the incident.

“Utilizing your official position this way diminishes the impartiality that you are expected to observe,” the reprimand stated.

Mitchell said Ternes is “really, really firm” on the issue of professional accountability.

“His expectation is that if he’s driving home after work tonight and he’s speeding and he gets stopped, he expects to get a ticket,” Mitchell said. “They can’t differentiate between co-workers, neighbors, friends, family members, and he’s very firm when it comes to that expectation.”

Staff held accountable

The records showed a variety of ways in which the lines between personal and professional lives have blurred on occasion.

In Cass County, a sheriff’s sergeant on patrol in July 2009 inappropriately stopped a vehicle driven by his wife with another man as a passenger, according to the complaint.

The sergeant confronted his wife and made the man she was with get out of the vehicle and walk home, then allowed his wife to drive under the influence, the disciplinary letter stated. The sergeant was suspended for three days without pay.

Sheriff Paul Laney said that while “we’ll never know” if the sergeant’s wife indeed drove under the influence, every decision the sergeant made in that situation was poor, and the severe discipline was meant to send a message “that we’re serious about this.”

“Three days is a lot of pay,” he said.

In a case that resulted in discipline for employees of both the Cass County Jail and West Fargo Police Department, it was preferential treatment of a jailed West Fargo police officer that landed them in trouble.

Officer Allen Schmidt was accused of hitting his girlfriend on Dec. 14, 2011. He pleaded guilty to misdemeanor disorderly conduct in March 2012 after resigning from the police force.

A correctional officer at the jail received a written reprimand for allowing a sheriff’s deputy who was a good friend of Schmidt’s to visit him while he was in jail on the day of the incident – a type of visit not allowed for the general public, disciplinary records state.

The correctional officer “admitted she knew better” but indicated “she was having problems separating personal feelings and work when dealing with Al in custody,” her sergeant wrote in his disciplinary recommendation.

The deputy who visited Schmidt received a written reprimand for not following the proper chain of command, and a jail corporal also received a written reprimand for allowing the visit and for allowing Schmidt to use his personal cellphone. A member of the West Fargo Police Department also received a letter of counseling for not disclosing information during the internal investigation about a conversation she’d had with Schmidt the day before the alleged domestic incident.

Laney said he has made accountability a priority since taking office in 2007.

“Our mistakes are minor compared to our successes,” he said.

Across the river

Moorhead’s disciplinary records since 2008 showed only one complaint where an officer’s actions involving personal relationships led to disciplinary action.

A lieutenant received a two-day unpaid suspension for divulging details of a police call and incident that involved the person who filed the complaint in September 2009. The lieutenant shared the details with non-law enforcement people who were acquainted with both him and the complainant.

Moorhead Chief David Ebinger said he suspended the lieutenant because he holds command-rank staff to a higher standard, adding that the lieutenant has since been an upstanding leader.

Last October, a deputy with the Clay County Sheriff’s Office was suspended for five days for violating the office’s policies on nepotism and conflicting relationships by entering an “intimate relationship” with a trainee, participating in her evaluations and failing to notify his supervisor about the relationship, according to personnel records. The deputy also was removed as a police training officer and suspended from the Red River Valley SWAT team until Jan. 1, 2013, “in an effort to allow you time to focus on your personal life and professional career,” Sheriff Bill Bergquist wrote in the disciplinary letter.

Dilworth’s response to The Forum’s records request consisted of only four complaints, all of them unfounded and the oldest from Nov. 15, 2012. City Administrator Ken Parke told The Forum in an email that Police Chief Josh Ebert, who started last year, “went through all the files and what he found is what you received so I’m assuming that is all there is.”

Ebert did not return a phone message left at his office last week.


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