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Archie Ingersoll, Published March 21 2014

As Fargo detectives' caseloads surge, clearance rates trend downward

FARGO – For a police detective, each minute has the potential to bring a new case that can drastically change the complexion of the hours ahead.

“Our days get dictated by other people,” Fargo Detective Matt Ysteboe said.

Granted, it’s not every day that Ysteboe, who investigates violent crimes, is called to a murder scene. But he juggles about 20 cases each week while another 20 sit on his desk awaiting lab results.

“Eventually, you get too many cases you can’t do quality work on because you’re just kind of shuffling them through,” he said. “I think I’m really close to the point where the quantity would be ruining the quality.”

Over the past six years, Ysteboe and other detectives in the criminal investigations unit, which deals with violent and property crimes, have seen the average caseload per detective increase 38 percent. The unit’s total number of cases has jumped 64 percent, police statistics show.

Deputy Chief Pat Claus, who’s in charge of investigations, links these rising numbers to a decline in the unit’s clearance rate from 59 percent to 44 percent during the same time.

“I think Fargo P.D. still continues to contain crime and minimize its impact on our community, but it is an issue which we must constantly reassess,” he said. “We could do so much more with more detectives, but we’re realists.”

For the 2014 budget year, Chief Keith Ternes asked for five more police officers, and the City Commission gave him three. Two of those officers were added to the patrol division, and the third joined the criminal investigations unit as a detective focused on stolen property that’s pawned. The addition of a civilian crime analyst freed up a detective who was filling that role.

Those moves brought the number of detectives in the criminal investigations unit to 12.5, counting one detective who works part time for the unit. Claus said he would like one or two more detectives and another sergeant to oversee a team of detectives. He would make that request through Ternes, who has the final say on how many officers the department will seek later this year when city commissioners begin discussing the 2015 budget.

Ternes said he needs to review police data before he determines how many detectives or patrol officers he may ask for. He said there would be value in adding more detectives, but the challenge is making sure all of the department’s divisions are staffed appropriately.

“Every one of the department’s commanders would say they could use more help,” the chief said. “We’ll never have enough cops, and that’s not unique to Fargo.”

Ternes said a new officer costs taxpayers about $75,000 to $80,000 the first year and roughly $70,000 for each following year.

‘No simple formulas’

Claus recalled a survey he did in 2006 that looked at the numbers of detectives in cities around the region. Through his work, he found that Fargo, with eight detectives in the criminal investigations unit at that point, had fewer per capita than nearby cities.

Claus said the unit needed four more detectives that year just to be in the normal range. By 2008, the unit’s number of detectives had risen to 10.

Today, Fargo’s 12.5 detectives serve a population of 109,000. Comparatively, the Sioux Falls (S.D.) Police Department has 27 detectives for a city of 157,000. The Bismarck Police Department has 11 detectives for a population of 63,000. And Rochester, Minn., a city with nearly the same population as Fargo, has nine detectives. These numbers only include detectives who deal with property and violent crimes, with the exception of Bismarck, which has two detectives who investigate traffic crashes.

The problem is that no conclusions can be drawn from these kinds of comparisons, even in cases of similar-sized cities with similar crime rates, said Leonard Matarese, research director at the Center for Public Safety Management in Washington, D.C.

“You really have to have a clear understanding of what the (case) workload is in a particular community to even begin to make any judgments about staffing levels,” he said. “There are no simple formulas for this.”

Matarese said determining the necessary number of detectives for a city requires an in-depth analysis that examines the numbers and types of crimes being investigated, what those investigations entail, how cases are managed, and clearance rates. He pointed out that certain crimes require different approaches and different levels of effort than others.

“Obviously, the bigger the workload per investigator the tougher it is to clear as many cases as you’d like to clear,” Matarese said. “But again, there’s no clear answer as to what’s an appropriate workload for each investigator.”

Moorhead, a city of 38,000 residents, has four police detectives who investigate violent and property crimes, and four narcotics detectives who can help out with investigations of any major case, Chief David Ebinger said.

Ebinger said he’d like more detectives, but he sees a greater need for patrol officers. “The immediate priority’s got to be patrol because they’re the ones that respond to emergency situations,” he said.

Moorhead officials have preliminarily told the police to expect to gain two patrol officers and a community service officer in advance of the city’s annexation of Oakport Township in January 2015, Ebinger said.

West Fargo, a city of 26,000 people, has five police detectives who investigate all crimes except drug-related ones, Chief Arland Rasmussen said.

“Our investigators keep really busy,” Rasmussen said. “I would assume that in the next couple of years, we would add a position for investigations because of the cases coming in.”

‘Even with passion’

In 2008, Fargo averaged 108 cases per detective. Since then, that figure has nearly doubled, with last year’s average number of cases reaching 149. Claus said he’d like that number to fall closer to 100.

The deputy chief blames the surge in cases on Fargo’s recent population growth, which has come with increases in crime. He said the volume of cases sent to prosecutors has gone up because detectives have taken on that many more cases.

At the same time, clearance rates have fallen, but mostly, those rates still equal or exceed the national average, Claus said. “There are very few crimes, major crimes, that we don’t clear,” he said.

Claus said technology has helped ease investigators’ workloads, but advances in evidence collection have made cases more complex and labor intensive.

“We process more evidence. We send more evidence out, which gives us the more potential to solve the case, but that takes people to handle all that,” he said. “Even with technology, even with passion, even with a work ethic that I think is second to none, detectives can only do X amount of work in X amount of time.”

Detectives often find themselves working long shifts, especially after a big case breaks. Their supervisors keep tabs on their hours and watch for signs of fatigue, Claus said.

“We have to look out for the welfare of the officer in order to look out for the welfare of the case,” he said.

Ysteboe, who lives in Moorhead, said that after his workday in Fargo, he’s able to drive across the Red River and put the investigations out of his mind. In his off-hours, he recharges.

“If you don’t have the downtime,” he said, “I think you absolutely would burn out.”

Readers can reach Forum reporter Archie Ingersoll at (701) 451-5734