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Published August 31 2013

Moorhead leads metro in force complaints, but none upheld

MOORHEAD – The Moorhead Police Department has investigated more complaints about excessive use of force since 2008 than any other law enforcement agency in Cass and Clay counties, but not one of the complaints has been sustained, a review of disciplinary records shows.

That’s not because the department is giving officers a free pass, Police Chief David Ebinger said.

“We’re looking hard, and we’re not finding it,” he said in an interview last week.

From 2008 to 2012, there were 14 complaints against Moorhead police officers for excessive use of force. In 12 cases, officers were exonerated, meaning the officer’s conduct was found to be in compliance with department policy and the law, Ebinger said.

One complaint was not sustained, meaning there wasn’t enough evidence to sustain a complaint but also not enough to exonerate the officer. The other complaint was determined to be unfounded, meaning a review found the allegations were false or misrepresented facts.

Officers also were exonerated in two complaints about alleged improper use of force.

An excessive force complaint alleges an officer used too much force. An improper force complaint claims no force should have been used at all.

Details of the complaints are only public under Minnesota law if the allegations are upheld, but among them is an incident that prompted 77-year-old James Van Raden of Moorhead to file a civil lawsuit last week in U.S. District Court in Minnesota.

In the lawsuit, Van Raden claims three Moorhead officers used excessive force when they restrained him and twice shocked him with a Taser during a welfare check two years ago, despite his warnings that the stun gun could kill him.

Ebinger has said the department’s internal review of the incident exonerated the officers.

Moorhead police use an administrative review process in which every use of force incident is reviewed by a sergeant, lieutenant, the deputy chief and the chief.

Ebinger, who was commander of the internal affairs division of the Little Rock (Ark.) Police Department before being hired as Moorhead’s police chief in 2006, said he has upheld excessive force complaints previously in his career and fired people because of it.

“I came here looking for that kind of behavior,” he said, adding that the Fargo-Moorhead metro area has “an incredibly low level of police misconduct, where we have a pretty professional group of law enforcement officers.”

A good discipline structure identifies problems from within the department, and Moorhead officers know their supervisors are watching, Ebinger said.

“We’ll support them when false allegations are made, but they also know they’re going to be looked at and held accountable,” he said.

Personnel complaints obtained by The Forum through open records requests showed six excessive force complaints against Fargo police since 2008, four of which resulted in disciplinary action.

“Every report that we get is fully investigated,” said Sgt. Mike Mitchell, who oversees the department’s Office of Professional Standards. “We do have a very, very small number of use of force incidents that are determined to be outside of our policy.”

According to Fargo police records:

• An officer received a two-day unpaid suspension in July 2010 for his treatment of a Fargodome concertgoer who had been kicked out of a John Mayer concert, tried to get back into the concert and subsequently fled from the officer. The officer’s grabbing of the man “about the head and/or neck” after he was located by an NDSU officer “was in fact unnecessary,” Chief Keith Ternes wrote in his disposition of the complaint.

• Two officers received letters of reprimand in September 2010 for making a physical arrest of a woman that resulted in an injury. The officers had gone to speak to the mother of a juvenile involved in an incident, and one of the officers became frustrated with the woman’s behavior and attitude and ended up raising his voice and preventing her from closing the door to her house. The incident culminated with the officer grabbing on to the woman and struggling with her, and the other officer also ended up getting involved in the confrontation.

• An officer and a sergeant both received verbal consultations for unsatisfactory performance after the February 2011 arrest of two women at a Fargo hotel to which officers had responded for a noise complaint. The officer pulled one of the women from her room into the hallway, unintentionally causing her to hit her head on the door. The women contended they weren’t responsible for making noise in the hotel, and charges against them were ultimately dismissed.

• In February, an officer received a two-day suspension without pay for violating the department’s policy on response to resistance. His status as a police training officer and defensive tactics instructor also was suspended indefinitely. Ternes wrote that the officer “unreasonably and unnecessarily grabbed” a man and physically forced him to the ground on Jan. 2, 2013. Another officer who witnessed the incident reported it to a sergeant.

The Forum has previously reported on five excessive force complaints against members of the Cass County Sheriff’s Office since 2008, including the pepper-spraying of an inmate at the county jail by a senior jail sergeant who later resigned in May just before he was to be fired.

Two of the other four complaints were sustained. In one of the those cases, training was recommended for a correctional officer at the jail who in 2011 grabbed the handcuffs an inmate was wearing, pulling the inmate into the cell door window and his hands through the food port, causing injury. In the other, a jail corporal was suspended for two days for an incident this March in which he used his Taser during an intake search of an inmate who was on his stomach with his legs being held by one deputy and his upper torso by another.

West Fargo police had two complaints of excessive force, neither of them sustained. No excessive force complaints were filed against officers in Clay County or Dilworth.

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