This is another story I had never planned on writing. Once again, I had a rough draft on another story — and then the following happened:
I was at Fargo North High School for some events involving my grandchildren. While walking the halls, I saw the familiar face of a friend. He was always a good-looking young man, and as he matured and ultimately became Fargo’s chief of police, the good looks continued, along with our friendship.
To this day, I admire former Chief of Police Keith Ternes and everything he accomplished during his tenure. The city lost a good man because others who were responsible pulled a Brutus on their Caesar.
The same year, I also lost a friend in Lt. Jeff Skuza. Jeff was a smart, outgoing young officer, husband and father. He always had a nice thing to say; around me, at least, he had a great sense of humor. To my knowledge, he was a true professional and well-liked by all who knew him.
Just so there is no misunderstanding, let me say that his widow has every right to think and say whatever she wishes. I cannot fathom the hurt and loss that she and her children feel. But by the same token, I do question how the media ― both print and electronic ― used her pain to entice their viewers.
There is a lot of sharing to be made of what happened after Lt. Skuza took his own life. In going over the timeline of events, here’s what basically occurred and when:
On Feb. 15, 2015, a taser was discharged at Fargo Police headquarters. An investigation was conducted into who discharged the weapon, with Lt. Skuza assisting in it.
On Feb. l6, Skuza admitted to Deputy Chief David Todd that, in fact, the person they were looking for was him. On Feb. 17, Skuza admitted the facts in writing to Todd, and Feb. 18, a complaint was filed against him. The record I’ve seen does not indicate whether Todd or anyone else suggested to Lt. Skuza that he utilize the health and wellness program benefits the city provides.
Do not misunderstand: A bomb began ticking inside Lt. Skuza from the moment he failed to admit what happened. It is obvious from the letter of admission that he wrote to Todd that he was in pain, ashamed and any other adjective one could use to describe his sense that he had failed himself.
The incident was minor in nature. If it had been admitted from the beginning, this subject wouldn’t be under discussion, and my two friends would both be on duty today.
But he didn’t, and in his own mind (much less the later police complaint and subsequent investigation), he was inconsolable. In Jeff’s mind, what he did was unforgivable. On March 11, the bomb in his head went off. He took his own life. No one provided the bullet that killed him. He did what he did himself in remorse and pain.
After the police complaint was filed Feb. 18, most news reports suggested that Chief Ternes sat on his behind and dragged things out. Nothing could be further from the truth!
On March 4, Lt. Skuza was placed on paid administrative leave. The chief had asked for recommendations from Deputy Chiefs Todd and Patrick Claus — and March 10, they recommended termination of Lt. Skuza.
Ternes received a memo from the office of the Cass County States Attorney, and March 7 received an opinion from the City Attorney, each indicating how the conduct of Skuza could affect future cases in which he could be a witness.
Please note that the chief needed all of this information to assist him in making the final call. Then, March 11, the psychological bomb went off. And Lt. Skuza took his own life.
All of the talk at the time about how the chief had dragged his feet was completely inaccurate. He was conflicted himself in having to deal with the unexplainable actions of his friend and colleague. As the lieutenant’s commander, Ternes came to the only conclusion he could ― and he did so in a respectful, professional manner.
With the exception of Commissioner Dave Piepkorn, who observed the chief being thrown under the proverbial bus, and Commissioners Max Williams, Tony Gehrig and Melissa Sobolik, who were not involved, the city’s heads circled the wagons and affixed the blame on Ternes. The chief was unaware that as with Caesar, his own Brutus was about to materialize.
The worst thing in the aftermath of Lt. Skuza’s tragic death was the way the force turned on Ternes. Rumors were floated that everyone was afraid of the chief, that he was holed up in his office and that he had the audacity to have his wife on the payroll of the Fargo Police Department … and that irritated some.
One has to ask where the late mayor was, along with the City Commission liaison to the Police Department and the former city administrator, who never had a problem sticking his nose into problems where he didn’t belong. And where were Human Resources and the police union? All of them should have already been aware if there were such big morale problems, and ― had he been told ― I have no doubt Chief Ternes would have worked things out. This idea that ranking officers didn’t dare talk to the chief is both sickening and appalling.
Put yourself in the shoes of Chief Ternes, as events unfolded. A widowed wife, as shocked and hurt as a human could be, attacks him. He can’t respond. The media jump on her grief and turn it into a media circus. A little more factual reporting, a little more courage on the part of the Police Department could have defused the entire situation and placed it in perspective. That surely didn’t happen.
Luckily for the current FPD brass, I was not on the selection committee to hire the new chief. I can guarantee you that, under the circumstances as I now know them, the new chief would have come from outside this city.
I remember when Chris Magnus was chief. So much was accomplished so fast, and the city was well-served. The department at that time was very short-handed because of the Gulf War military call-up. Hence, the personnel were worked to exhaustion, and they resented it.
There are still some who go ballistic at the mention of his name (on Facebook, for example), and yet … the work was done. He did what he felt was needed with the staff the city provided. That’s professionalism.
Chief Ternes, too, is guilty of being a true professional. If I could turn the clock back, Lt. Skuza would be on the job right now, working with Chief Ternes. Amen.