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'Toxic,' 'hostile,' scary': Internal complaints may help explain why West Fargo police chief was placed on leave

West Fargo Police Chief Mike Reitan, center, Moorhead Police Chief David Ebinger, left, and Fargo Police Chief David Todd, right, on Sunday, March 13, 2016, at the Fargo Police Department Headquarters after a round of possibly tainted heroin overdoses was reported. Rick Abbott / The Forum

WEST FARGO — Toxic. Hostile. Favoritism. Unpredictable. Scary. Low morale.

Those are terms found in numerous internal police complaints about West Fargo Police Chief Mike Reitan and his leadership released by city officials Tuesday night in response to an open records request filed by The Forum late last week.

The documents in Reitan's personnel file may shed light on why West Fargo City Administrator Tina Fisk placed the police chief on paid administrative leave Friday, Jan. 13. The city has offered Reitan a three-month severance package if he leaves the post.

Although reviews for Reitan, a 30-year-plus veteran of the department, had been highly positive, most often exceeding standards, documents obtained by The Forum show multiple members of the police force filed complaints with the city last year regarding Reitan's leadership style.

When reached by phone Tuesday night, Reitan said he had not seen any of the complaints and the idea that some in his department claim he created a hostile work environment took him as much by surprise as the news he was being placed on leave.

"This caught me by surprise, I had no indication" Reitan said Tuesday. "For me to be told I was creating a hostile work environment, I am just floored. I feel betrayed, actually. If somebody had made an initial complaint that there was a problem, could someone not have talked to me and we could have addressed it. I've never been put on a performance improvement plan or anything like that. Nobody, nobody has talked to me about a behavioral issue." While Fisk has said she does not expect Reitan to return to work for the city, Reitan has retained a private employee attorney and said he would like to return to his job.

City spokeswoman Melissa Richard said the city had no further comment relating to the documents.

In the complaints, police staff allege Reitan could be quickly angered and often lacked effective communication skills.

"He is a bully, a tyrant, a dictator," one officer wrote in a complaint. "The employees feel the city has left them abandoned and more than one employee has compared us to a battered wives syndrome. If [Reitan] simply says, 'Hi' and does not demean someone that day, we call it a good day."

Some staff said they feared retaliation if they came forward with complaints about the chief.

In an email to Fisk dated Sept. 30, 2016, Assistant Chief Jerry Boyer, who is currently serving as interim chief while Reitan is on paid administrative leave, asked how to handle an employee who approached him regarding the low morale of the department.

"This employee made comments regarding feeling 'unsafe' and 'scared' to come to work. This employee is afraid of retaliation and is concerned about the behavior escalating and continuing," Boyer wrote. "... I also fear for retaliation for bringing this to you."

Staff complaints included instances of visual anger from Reitan and that the behaviors had escalated since he became chief in 2014.

The complaints allege multiple instances of yelling at officers and slamming his fists down in anger during conversations. Staff say his communication is cold and stoic, which is ineffective, and they say he has created a "hostile and abusive workplace" in West Fargo.

Complaints include the comments:

• "Things are bad, we are the people that see homicides, shootings and other horrific crimes," the officer wrote. "We are afraid to come to work because of him, not what we need to deal with."

• "Most times he is so angry he can't hardly speak. He puts down [his finger] in front of you and slams it so hard it should break," one officer wrote.

• "I have witnessed behavior in the past 10 years of employment that are increasing in nature of both a bullying, threatening and abusive manner," one officer wrote in a complaint.

• One officer wrote that Reitan's treatment of staff was similar to how an abuser treats a victim. "After Mike yells at someone, belittles them, or does something over a period of time, he will then reward them with a present," the officer wrote. The same officer wrote that in August 2015, he approached Reitan about not delegating work and allowing other staff to contribute. "He agreed this was something to work on, it was told to me that another individual had this conversation with him as well," the officer wrote. "This also came up repeatedly in admin meetings, he acknowledges it, yet the behavior continues."

• One officer alleges Reitan has made comments about lining people up and slapping them.

• Officers alleged that Reitan would give poor performance evaluations of employees he did not like. One complaint said that a particular sergeant has long endured a history of verbal/mental abuse from Reitan at the police department and Reitan often takes "cheap shots" at the sergeant.

• One sergeant emailed Reitan to point out a low morale among officers and asked him to approve some suggestions to raise morale that ranged from a fairer scheduling plan to equipment. The sergeant said he was emailing rather than having an in-person conversation with Reitan because he thought it was Reitan's preference. In his reply to the sergeant, Reitan said, "For clarification I would welcome you to sit down and talk anytime." Reitan went on to address the concerns of the sergeant and agreed there is a "morale issue." "There has always been someone or something that has people unhappy," Reitan said. "What we can do something about is the verbal and nonverbal clues that leadership at all levels displays so that we avoid feeding the negative attitude. As direct supervisors it is important to directly address the issues as they are raised by staff. It is not agreeing with the 'life sucks' but looking to the root and working to address the perceived problem. I say perceived as sometimes it is just clarification that is needed."

One officer wrote in a complaint that Reitan had been his direct supervisor while assistant chief for several years and Reitan often gave him high marks on his evaluation.

"There were a few incidents with him where he would get so angry when he was the assistant chief but became worse when he received the Chief of Police position."

The officer said Reitan's unpredictable behaviour caused him to seek counseling from The Village in regard to his treatment as an employee.

The complaints show a warning from Fisk who emailed Reitan on Oct. 17 after hearing from a business owner who had received information about an ordinance from Reitan.

In the email, Fisk said it is the police department's intent to enforce ordinances instead of taking an active role in not only trying to create but interpreting ordinances, which are legal functions.

Fisk said Reitan had made clear acts of insubordination by handing out information to businesses that had not been reviewed or approved by the administration. She pointed to an instance in which Reitan spoke to the City Commission during a meeting regarding a business that was in violation of a liquor license ordinance, which she called "not the venue or the appropriate time." "I can't see this any other way than trying to push your opinion in a public forum to create your desired outcome without going through the process. I cannot help but perceive that you as chief feel you should be able to, without approval of anyone, do what you so choose. That is not how the system is set up," Fisk wrote.

Reitan said Tuesday he was aware his communication with Fisk was strained and he offered late last year to hold regular meetings with her to improve their relationship. He said the two had one meeting in January and he was expecting to meet with her again. Instead, when they met, he was told he would be placed on leave.

Reitan said Tuesday he is a finalist for a U.S. Marshal position. He said Tuesday that he looked into the position and began interviewing in 2016. He did not immediately notify city staff of the possible change in positions but he alerted Fisk and the department in December. He was contacted by Sen. John Hoeven's office last month and was told a decision would be made after Jan. 1. As of Tuesday, he was still waiting to hear the U.S. Marshal Service's decision.

Reitan said when he was first appointed chief by the City Commission, former Chief Arland Rasmussen, who recommended Reitan for the job, warned him the new title would be a change of pace. Reitan said he took multiple leadership training sessions to prepare for the position.

"Those were all things that I did on my own at the suggestion of the former chief," Reitan said Tuesday.

He said he tried to ensure he was leading his department by meeting with each individual to discuss their career development shortly after taking the position and again in late 2016.

While Reitan admitted there was some conflict with former Human Resources Director Carmen Schroeder, who eventually resigned from the city, Reitan said he has always encouraged staff to come to him to work out issues.

His personnel file reflects some concern by city officials that his communication style could easily be misinterpreted.

And "your leadership with your immediate staff may need a little fine-tuning," said a 2010 performance appraisal.

Another performance appraisal from 2007 said that Reitan "may scare the general public because you are too formal or firm at your initial meeting. Try a friendlier more casual greeting." It also noted concern "not with subordinates but with the public and their perception that you may be too strict, stern or militaristic."

It was also noted that he often took on responsibilities rather than delegating them to other staff members.

The Casselton native was assistant chief for almost nine years under Rasmussen. He began working as a patrol officer with the police department in 1987. He was promoted to police sergeant in 1995. Reitan retired in 2009 as a chief master sergeant with the North Dakota Air National Guard Civil Engineering Squadron in Fargo after 33 years of service.

The City Commission has taken no action on Reitan's position but is expected to call a special meeting on the matter soon. Mayor Rich Mattern has said the ball is now in Reitan's court.

Mattern has likened the situation to that of former Fargo Police Chief Keith Ternes, who was asked by the city of Fargo to resign in 2014 after more than eight years on the job.

The city of Fargo created a committee to investigate morale in the police department and completed more than 60 interviews of officers. The committee found the department's disciplinary process was carried out in an erratic manner and punishment was not balanced with encouragement.

Reitan said he is unsure of what he will do next.

"I just wish the men and women of the police department and the city of West Fargo the very best," he said.