For Denis Otterness, returning to to his home state as the top cop in one of its fastest-growing cities is a "dream come true."
Otterness, 52, plans to eventually retire from his career in West Fargo, at the same police department he served in the first few years of his career, Otterness said during an interview with the Pioneer on Thursday, Sept. 3.
West Fargo is also the hometown of his wife, Trisha.
The Beach, N.D., native and North Dakota State University graduate started his law enforcement career in South Bend, Ind., after attending the police academy there, but he quickly returned to the state as a patrol officer in West Fargo. He then served as a deputy chief of police in Bloomington, Minn., for about 20 years before moving to Montana, where he was named the chief of police and emergency management director for the Montana State University Billings Police Department.
Otterness also applied for the Fargo police chief position, which was announced around the same time as West Fargo, due to the retirement of Chief David Todd. However, Otterness withdrew his candidacy for the Fargo position in lieu of West Fargo.
Otterness plans to take an individual-focused approach to his new position, with plans to meet with each employee one-on-one during his first few weeks at the helm.
"I want to get to know them on an individual level," he said. "The best ideas can come from all levels of your staff."
In between those meetings, Otterness will be getting to know the community as well as the department's organization, although he does not plan on any staffing or organizational changes in the near future.
"There aren't going to be any real big changes; I think the the values we all have in common are shared," Otterness said. "There is still a lot of support for law enforcement in this community."
While Otterness will be joining the West Fargo police family at a time when the department is reportedly running well, policing policies are under scrutiny nationwide, as well as issues of systematic racism and community inclusivity. The city recently agreed to form an inclusive community group that will examine the city's guide to diversity initiatives and assess need and community engagement for inclusive policies.
Otterness said while the area has strong support of law enforcement, he still hopes to strengthen community ties.
"I also understand there are always things we can do to improve relations with those that might feel marginalized or underrepresented," Otterness said.
A passionate proponent of consistent training, Otterness said training and education as well as emotional and mental health support will be a priority for his department.
"It's not just talking about those things, it's putting them into practice," he said.
Otterness graduated from the University of St. Thomas in 2016 with a master's degree in public safety and law enforcement leadership. He also served as an adjunct instructor of criminal justice at Normandale Community College.
He replaces Heith Jahke, who returned to a position with the FBI after leading West Fargo since 2017.
Both he and finalist interim Police Chief Jerry Boyer went through a formal interview process before a committee of eight that included city commissioners Brad Olson and Mark Simmons, human resources director Jenna Wilm, City Administrator Tina Fisk, Fire Chief Dan Fuller, West Fargo Superintendent Beth Slette, City Attorney Sarah Wear and retired Cass County Chief Deputy Rick Majerus.
Otterness was sworn in as West Fargo police chief at the City Commission meeting Tuesday, Sept. 8.
His wife, Trisha, was asked to pin Otterness's new West Fargo badge number 103 on him. The couple were joined at the commission by their two children, twins Nathan and Nicole, 16.