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BCI: Fargo mall chase could have been handled better

FARGO — In response to public scrutiny, the North Dakota Bureau of Criminal Investigation issued a report Thursday critiquing last month’s chase through West Acres mall that involved plainclothes officers with guns drawn pursuing a man wanted on felony charges.

The BCI officials who reviewed the June 17 chase found three ways the bureau could have better handled the situation:

- Keeping local law enforcement agencies updated on the plan for making an arrest.

- Possibly creating a perimeter around the mall, monitoring the suspect from outside and discussing options for having officers enter the building.

- Wearing clothing or markings that clearly identified officers as police.

Before the chase began, the BCI was conducting surveillance outside a Moorhead, Minn., home with the hope of arresting Kendall Feist, a 33-year-old Bismarck man wanted on charges of selling methamphetamine and possessing stolen property. After he left the home in a pickup truck, Moorhead police officers tried to pull him over, but he sped off, according to court papers.

The Moorhead Police Department is conducting an internal investigation into how the chase was handled, including the matter of three city squad cars following Feist onto a busy golf course. The BCI has said that one of its officers in a red SUV monitored the vehicle pursuit but that no BCI officers took part in it.

The BCI eventually caught up with Feist at West Acres in Fargo after a helicopter operated by U.S. Customs and Border Protection spotted the pickup in the parking lot. Three BCI officers, wearing plainclothes and carrying guns at the ready, hustled through the mall and, within minutes, found Feist unarmed, hiding in a trash bin just outside the mall, authorities said.

At least one of the BCI officers was carrying a long gun, and at some point, all three had guns drawn, Fargo police said. Surveillance video showed a BCI officer wearing a vest that said “police” and another displaying a badge on a chain, police said.

The BCI’s actions, which caused alarm inside West Acres, irked mall managers and Fargo police officials, spurring Chief Keith Ternes to publicly question how the chase was handled at the mall. Ternes has said that it was difficult to identify the three officers as law enforcement, and that he would have preferred if the BCI officers had secured the perimeter of the mall and waited for uniformed officers to go after Feist.

Ternes also has said it did not appear that Feist was an immediate threat to anyone in the mall. North Dakota Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem, who oversees the BCI, has said no one knew during the chase whether Feist was armed. Stenehjem has said Feist, a convicted felon with a lengthy criminal history, was not a certain threat to the public but a potential one – and that was enough of a reason for the BCI officers to keep pursuing him.

Thursday’s BCI report, which Stenehjem said was prompted by the attention the chase has drawn, noted areas where its officers displayed “good operational judgment.” Those included proper planning with local law enforcement agencies in conducting the surveillance of Feist, safe driving, staying in contact with agencies during the vehicle chase and allowing other agencies to play key roles.

The BCI has said that none of its officers violated any bureau policies during the pursuit, and Thursday’s report maintained that stance, pointing out that the “agents had to make quick decisions based upon active field operations and direct involvement in the arrest.”