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As leadership expectations change, being police chief gets even harder

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Embattled West Fargo Police Chief Mike Reitan speaks to WDAY Radio host Jay Thomas on Monday, Jan. 30, 2017, in Fargo.Michael Vosburg / Forum Photo Editor2 / 3
092414.N.FF.MissingStudent Fargo (N.D.) Police Chief Keith Ternes announces with North Dakota State University President Dean Bresciani the discovery of a body matching the description of missing student Thomas Bearson on Tuesday, Sept. 23, 2014, during a press conference in the City Hall. Michael Vosburg / Forum Photo Editor3 / 3

FARGO — The job of police chief is fraught with potential pitfalls. It's a precarious role that feels the tug of demands from the public, officers and city leaders. Not meeting enough of those demands can be a problem, but so can trying to please everyone.

"You're basically putting a guy out there on a tightrope with a broomstick to balance with over a whole bunch of crocodiles," said Pat Claus, a former deputy chief at the Fargo Police Department.

Claus said he once withdrew his name from consideration for an open chief's job in Grand Forks because he realized he loved being a cop, and he wasn't sure he'd love being a chief. "Chiefs don't get to be cops anymore. It's too political," he said.

Along with navigating a political landscape, chiefs now have to find their footing as police agencies across the country shift from a militaristic style of leadership to one that emphasizes the empowerment of officers.

In the past few years, Fargo and West Fargo have both seen police chiefs leave their departments under clouds of officer complaints, as well as concerns from city leaders. How much the departures of Fargo Chief Keith Ternes in 2014 or West Fargo Chief Mike Reitan this month had to do with their leadership styles, particularly a failure to fully embrace an empowerment model, is debatable.

But what's clear is that there's a nationwide trend of chiefs losing their jobs or struggling with departmental dysfunction as they cling to a militaristic, command-and-control leadership style, according to a police leadership expert.

"The command-and-control approach to law enforcement may have worked in the '50s, '60s, early '70s. It has long since outgrown its lifespan within our profession," said Barry Reynolds, a former Wisconsin police officer who owns Police Leadership Resources, a training and consulting firm. "Fortunately, we are turning the corner, and we're seeing new approaches to how we lead within our organizations."

'To feel supported'

In a command-and-control structure, Reynolds said, power and decision-making is retained at the top of an organization. "Little, if any, input is expected from subordinates. It's more of a do-your-job type of environment," he said.

Reynolds said today's well-educated officers don't respond well to that rigid brand of leadership. What works better, he said, is empowerment leadership, aka transformational leadership, which invests in the training of officers and encourages them to make decisions on their own.

Jeffrey Bumgarner, a criminal justice professor at North Dakota State University, said he agrees that the job of police chief has changed over the years. He said many chiefs are trying to move beyond a "hierarchical bureaucrat" role by consulting with officers and seeking their buy-in on department initiatives.

"They know that their officers today in particular are under greater public scrutiny and so officers need to feel supported by the administration," he said.

Grant Benjamin, president of the North Dakota Fraternal Order of Police, said police chiefs are "put between that hard place of they're trying to protect their officers, but they also have to answer to your city administrator or your mayor."

Benjamin, who retired as a Fargo police officer in 2013, said that when chiefs have to make an unpopular decision, they're better off telling their officers the reasons for that decision. At least then, he said, officers can give feedback.

Reitan said this is where he fell short as West Fargo's chief. "I didn't communicate personally some of these conditions or some of the circumstances under which I made decisions," he said. "I relied on the information being shared all the way down" the chain of command.

'A military bearing'

Before the West Fargo City Commission voted Feb. 6 to fire Reitan, his relationship with his direct supervisor, City Administrator Tina Fisk, had become strained. And officers had complained about times when Reitan yelled at them and slammed his fists down in anger during conversations. They described his communication style as cold, stoic and ineffective, according to complaints filed with the city.

In a letter to The Forum, Reitan acknowledged that he does display his emotions, that he has a stoic appearance and that he presents "a military bearing because the military was part of my life for 33 years."

Despite his military background, Reitan said he had been working to bring empowerment leadership to his department. He said he tried to develop leaders within his force and added a couple of sergeants and a lieutenant so he could delegate power to them.

"I wasn't in a position that I wanted to make all the decisions," he said. "I wanted people within their areas to make decisions."

Reitan, who became chief in 2014, said he held one-on-one meetings that year with all his officers and sought their input on the direction of the department. Last year, he held another round of meetings in which he talked with officers about their career goals and future training, he said.

Similar to the upheaval at the West Fargo Police Department, Ternes resigned as Fargo's chief in 2014 after scores of officers complained that his leadership style created low morale, particularly his handling of discipline. Attempts to reach Ternes by phone were unsuccessful.

Under command-and-control leadership, discipline of officers is punitive, leaving them afraid to step out of line, Reynolds said. "Under more of an empowered leadership paradigm, we look at discipline as being an opportunity, an opportunity to train, an opportunity to develop," he said.

The little things

Chief Dave Todd, who replaced Ternes, has given officers who break rules the option of education-based discipline through which they teach their peers to avoid making the same mistakes. Todd said he believes that if officers know their chief cares about them, they will be OK with being held accountable.

Todd noted that command-and-control leadership is needed during emergencies. But at other times, it's important for a chief to listen to officers and incorporate their input into decision-making, he said.

"As a leader, you've got to recognize that you're not the smartest person in the room on any given topic," he said. "You kind of impart your vision on where you want the department to go, but then you have to be willing to let go."

Todd said he hopes the steps he's taken have brought the department's leadership closer to an empowerment model. He said some of those steps have been little things, like wearing his uniform to work every day, getting dressed in the locker room, chatting informally with his officers and sometimes hopping into a squad car to respond to a call.

Bumgarner, who spent three years as police chief of Bird Island, Minn., said these sorts of steps are inexpensive, easy ways to boost morale. "The mission isn't to be best friends with all of your officers," he said. "But you don't want to be their overlord either."

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