Police accountability: What happens when an officer is taken to court?

Local News

We continue our ongoing discussion of police accountability right here in the peace garden state.

In the past couple of weeks, we’ve laid out the reporting process for anyone who may fall victim to police misconduct and heard from local activists about possible reform.

Tonight, we walk through what happens once a criminal complaint against an officer is deemed credible.

Anytime force is used, which Morton County Assistant State’s Attorney Gabrielle Goter defines as, “any means other than, ‘Hey you’re under arrest’, handcuffed…” a report is required to be filled out by an officer and reviewed by a direct supervisor.

If someone is injured or killed at the hands of police and a lawsuit is filed, that’s when the report is sent up to the county State’s Attorney’s office. At that point, it’s used just like any other written statement in a court case and officers go to trial like anyone else.

We asked Goter: What is a typical punishment for an unnecessary use of force?

She replied, “The charges available are going to be the same as any other citizen. So if there’s an assault that occurs, what level of assault is it? If a homicide occurs, what level of intent was there?”

The State’s Attorney’s office doesn’t represent either party.

“We’d actually be in the same role we always are: prosecuting. That officer, individually, would be entitled to an attorney,” Goter explained.

That’s when the North Dakota Fraternal Order of Police comes in.

“A lot of officers join the FOP for the legal defense. So you’re covered if you get sued civilly for doing job-related work; if you get arrested and charged for something you did while you were working,” shared Sgt. Mitch Wardzinski, a Bismarck Police Officer and the State President for the ND FOP.

Sgt. Wardzinski says there are about a dozen attorneys that represent FOP members in North Dakota.

We asked him how often officers need representation in North Dakota.

He said, “So it could be as little as a $20 ticket for whatever may happen, or it could be something all the way up to an officer-involved shooting or an excessive use of force claim. So nothing’s too small or nothing’s too big as far as what’s covered. So to say how often it’s used, I guess I don’t have a number.”

Goter says she hasn’t reviewed any cases lately that resulted in criminal charges.

She also says she hasn’t seen any patterns of police misconduct locally either. But, she says if it’s something that people are complaining about, the discussion is absolutely worth having.

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