LegitSlater: Is There An Integrity Problem In North Dakota Law Enforcement?

Integrity, as defined by Dictionary.com, is a noun meaningadherence to moral and ethical principles; soundness of moral character; honesty.” More simply put, it is often defined as doing the right thing, even when no one is looking. Integrity is a value claimed by many organizations, to include law enforcement, as important towards guiding the actions of those organizations. This makes perfect sense, as many organizations which claim integrity as a value have often been entrusted with great responsibility in our society. Thankfully the people who work in law enforcement for the most part embody that value in their words and deeds, but too often the actions of a few can taint a profession as a whole. 

Those actions can also indicate the culture of an organization does not uphold the values it espouses. When a culture of integrity is not sufficient to uphold the expectation of integrity (especially in the leadership), it becomes too easy to pay only lip service to the value when no one is looking and act in conflict to that value. That can be a problem, especially when the organizations involved are the ones trusted with upholding the law.

So with the above in mind, recent incidents in North Dakota can’t help but make one wonder if there isn’t potentially an integrity problem with law enforcement here. Before I go on a cite examples I want to reiterate that, in my opinion, the vast majority of law enforcement officials are for the most part individuals of high moral and ethical character. They definitely do guide their actions with integrity. But, it only takes the actions of a few to taint the profession as a whole, and those actions of a few can create legitimate trust concerns from the citizenry law enforcement is supposed to serve. That, in and of itself, is a problem rooted in integrity.

The recent events that I find concerning are:

The 2013 Legislative Session: Several bills pertaining to gun rights, as well one pertaining to use of Unmanned Aerial Systems by law enforcement, were considered by the Legislature. Like many government entities, Law Enforcement has lobbying organizations (e.g. ND Peace Officers Association) who address the concerns of their community with lawmakers. But North Dakota Law enforcement also has a tendency to have several Sheriffs and Police Chiefs testify in person before committees (in addition to their lobbyists), while being paid by and using taxpayer-funded resources to do so. This walks right up to the integrity boundary, and strong arguments can be made one way or the other whether that boundary is crossed through this activity. What also walks up to the boundary (and crosses it sometimes) is opposing bills which sought to better protect the rights of our citizens; rights assured in the very constitutions every law enforcement officer swears an oath to uphold.

What definitely crossed that boundary, however, was when ND Law Enforcement crowds a hearing room with a significant number of uniformed officers (again, while being paid and using taxpayer resources to get to the Capital) with the clear intent of intimidating our elected officials into voting their way on several gun bills. The mere fact that very few of those who showed up actually testified makes it very reasonable for this conclusion to be drawn. Whether opposition to these bills was the right thing or not is not the question here. What clearly is of concern is the misuse of numbers, the uniform, and the power that goes with these things to push the legislature in the direction of the desires of law enforcement. What is also clear is this intimidation effort was not spontaneous, but rather organized by the leadership of ND Law Enforcement

The Lt. Jeff Skuza Tragedy: Unquestionably, the Mar 11th suicide of Fargo Police Department Lieutenant Jeff Skuza was a terrible tragedy. We will probably never know all the demons Lt. Skuza was battling that led him to this horrible decision, but what is a reasonable assumption is an investigation into an integrity violation of his own most likely pushed him over the edge. The investigation centered around a cover up by Skuza of the discharge of his Tazer inside the police station.

That creates a bigger question that needs to be addressed — why would a lieutenant in the police department, with many years of experience and whom had been entrusted with leading several other officers in that department, try to cover something like this up? Did the highest levels of leadership have an integrity failure of their own by promoting (or even hiring) an officer lacking of integrity himself? My guess is no, but what is plausible is that senior level of leadership may have established a climate within the Fargo PD where Lt. Skuza either felt he had no choice but to cover up his Tazer discharge, or he felt it was perfectly acceptable to do so. Either way it points to organizational integrity issues, and the leadership of that organization sets the tone for the organizations integrity culture.

ND Game & Fish Improper Meal Reimbursements: As Rob has reported here on the blog, the ND Game & Fish Department was recently hit with an audit containing 44 recommendations. Germane to this article are the ones pertaining to the Enforcement Division, made up primarily of Game Wardens (who are sworn ND Peace Officers). Specifically, Game Wardens appear to have been able to take great liberties with meal reimbursements they were not entitled to. From the audit:

“(Page 19) G&F assigns duty stations and patrol districts to each Game Warden. Game Wardens are required to reside in their assigned duty station. According to G&F policy, while on patrol a Game Warden is to stay within their district except for certain circumstances (i.e. emergencies, requested assistance, etc.). Game Wardens claimed meal allowances when they were on routine patrol within their district. For example, in October 2011, a Game Warden was reimbursed $528 for taxable meals when it appeared 18 out of the 21 days worked were spent solely patrolling within their district….

and

…In our audit time period, Game Wardens and Warden Supervisors were reimbursed approximately $180,000 for meals when no overnight stay was involved (meals taxable).”

Based on the fiscal policies of ND State Government, state employees may be reimbursed up to $35.00 a day for meals while traveling in state. The average cost of meal reimbursement is $11.67 per meal. This means the taxpayers of North Dakota paid for close to 15,400 meals which members of the Enforcement Division were not entitled to. What is more disturbing is a number this high can only have occurred with the knowledge of Game & Fish management (since it is logical and proper that they would approve the expenditures); such disregard is a violation of integrity by the leadership of this agency and the Enforcement Division itself.

BCI Cell Phone Picture Deletion Incident: Rob wrote here and here about how a ND Bureau of Criminal Investigation (BCI) agent allegedly seized a cell phone from a citizen, and deleted pictures from it which she seemingly took lawfully. He allegedly informed the woman it was unlawful for her to take pictures of him (which it is not so long as you do not hinder or obstruct them), ordered her to give him the phone, deleted the photos, and ordered her to leave the area. Each of these activities if they occurred (and the Attorney Generals office, who the BCI works for, isn’t talking) are a clear misuse of law enforcement authority, which is a violation of integrity.

Dickinson Trinity Fire Investigation: The final incident of concern I will highlight is the recent revelations surrounding the arson investigation by the Dickinson PD into the fire at Dickinson Trinity High School. While it is too soon to tell whether the allegations are founded or not, the nature of the allegations is concerning. You can read the full details here, but the basic concerns are:

Attorneys for Thomas Sander, the former Dickinson Trinity High School principal accused of starting a March 3 fire that badly damaged the school, allege police ignored a confession from a Trinity student.

Defense attorneys also allege in court documents that Sander’s confession was coerced and that he was not properly read his rights when he was being interrogated by police. Prosecutors dispute that, saying Sander was properly read his rights.

We simply can’t know at this time if Detective Terry Ostreich did indeed violate the constitutional rights of Sander, or ignore a confession because Ostreich may have had a lot of professional capital invested in his belief Sander was guilty of arson. But, the allegations of themselves are concerning and would not have been made without at least some way to back them up. If true, such incidents would be a gross violation of integrity by Ostreich and could impact his campaign for Stark County Sheriff (which could be another reason why he may have ignored evidence to the contrary of Sander’s supposed guilt) against Clarence Tuhy, a man who some contend has his own integrity concerns (although the Governor does not agree).

With this many examples and potential examples of integrity concerns in ND Law Enforcement over a relatively short period of time, one cannot help but wonder if there isn’t a systemic problem which needs to be addressed, starting with the leadership of ND Law Enforcement agencies at the state and local levels. If it is as widespread as it appears, the people of this state are the appropriate ones to start asking the hard questions necessary to hold law enforcement accountable, as it is doubtful the media, legislative, or executive branches of state and local government will.

Rob Port is the editor of SayAnythingBlog.com, a columnist for the Forum News Service, and host of the Plain Talk Podcast which you can subscribe to by clicking here.

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