Fargo police chief Keith Ternes is under public scrutiny this week after the Fargo Forum published a story on Sunday about morale in the department where eight cops have resigned this year.
“It’s toxic in that facility,” a police union official says.
But it’s the death of Lt. Jeff Skuza last spring that appears to be the springboard for the public reflection on the department.
He shot himself to death in a cemetery after it became apparent he was going to be fired for accidentally discharging a Taser and then trying to cover it up.
“If you delve into personnel files and internal affairs files, you will find an incredible amount of consistency and parallel between a scathing exit survey and a problematic employee,” Ternes told the paper in Sunday’s story.
Public comments about a dead cop’s job performance were highly likely to make the story get really ugly.
Today it got ugly when the police chief and the officer’s widow fought it out in public.
Sherrie Skuza, the officer’s widow, penned a letter about her husband’s death after the Forum agreed to publish it unedited.
Did Jeff talk to me about these situations? Yes. When I asked him why he didn’t do something or say something, he would say “it would be career suicide for me.”
Jeff never denied that trying to cover up his accidental Taser discharge was wrong. It took 30 hours for the guilt to eat away at him until he confessed what he had done to his supervisor. When asked by multiple people why he did it, he would state I don’t know. That question of “why” never left him from Day One until Day 25, when he ended his life.
One thing he told many people, including myself, is that he knew he would receive a letter of reprimand in his file for the accidental discharge of the Taser. Also, with all the disciplinary actions occurring at the PD, he did not trust what Ternes would do. Was what Jeff did wrong? Yes. Should job termination have been the penalty? Maybe.
One of the hardest parts of the situation for Jeff and our family was the internal process itself. Jeff wanted the decision to be made quickly so we could move on with our lives in whatever capacity that might be.
Why did it need to take so long to discipline someone who came forward on his own and said, “I am guilty, this is what I have done.”
He literally begged Ternes to speed up the process and just make his decision.
Even on March 10, when Jeff asked to meet with him so he could resign, Ternes said no, we need to finish this process (meaning the disciplinary process).
“Am I a grieving widow? Yes. Do I think what my husband did was right? No. Do I think he should have been disciplined? Yes. Do I blame the Fargo Police Department for his death? No. Jeff chose to pull the trigger, but Chief Ternes gave him the bullets and released the safety,” she wrote.
Ternes, the police chief, responded with a letter of his own.
In some respect, the easiest thing I or the department could have done in this instance would have been to minimize or ignore what occurred regarding Jeff’s Taser discharge and subsequent failure to be up front about it, or dispose of the incident in the quickest possible way to save Jeff and everyone else involved any anxiety.
But in the interest of thoroughly considering what alternatives aside from the possible termination of his employment were available to us, Jeff made a decision that none of us expected or had any control over.
Whether Ternes is the source of bad morale in the department is to be determined, of course. But it’s fairly bad judgement to get into a public debate with the widow of a dead cop.
Related: Al Flowers files excessive force complaint against Minneapolis police (Minnesota Public Radio News).