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Battle for the badge: Dunn Co. sheriff, former deputies fight for seat

MANNING — A sheriff and two deputies he fired walk into a bar.

Well, an election. That’s the story this year in Dunn County, where two former deputies are challenging relatively new Sheriff Clay Coker.

Coker, who is approaching his one-year anniversary of taking the job after moving from Montana, stands by the changes he has made to the department, which he said are necessary with the transformation Dunn County is experiencing due to the oil boom — it’s one of the four top oil-producing counties in the state with more than a thousand producing wells and 30-some rigs drilling at any given time.

But challengers Glenn Gietzen and Kenny LaRocque cite complaints they’ve heard from citizens as a sign Coker has gone too far and isn’t serving the community.

“To me it’s not a popularity contest,” Coker said in an interview.

He said he’s “not a politician.” He sees the race as more about who’s best for the job based on qualifications — him, he said. He points out that neither of his opponents has the kind of administrative experience he has.

The June 10 primary election will narrow down the field to two candidates, who will battle for the seat during general elections in November.

Moving forward

Before coming to North Dakota, Coker was executive director of the Montana Public Safety Officer Standards and Training Council. Before that, he served with various law enforcement departments in Texas and Montana, including as chief of police in Libby, Mont., for 13 years.

Coker said before he took over, Dunn County’s department was in need of help.

The department had an unhealthy work environment that led to high turnover, he said. Three deputies even returned to the department under the new regime. He pointed out the fact that the only officers that have left since he took over left involuntarily — his two opponents.

“I’ve put a bandage on the hemorrhage,” Coker said, adding to switch sheriffs now would hurt the momentum in the department.

“There’s no going back,” he said. “We’re moving forward.”

Since taking over, Coker has established a more comprehensive policy manual, a disciplinary system and generally has updated the record-keeping.

“That’s how you keep from getting in trouble and sued,” he said.

“... In the short time I’ve been here I’ve put the department band on track to where it needs to be,” he said.

While his opponents said the new automated phone system hurts the department’s service to citizens, Coker said it’s a necessary advance with the times the county is in.

“It’s a leap into the future,” Coker said. “It’s just a hard sell.”

Gietzen said he’s heard from citizens not getting calls back with the new system, and guaranteed that if he were elected sheriff, no call would go unanswered — even if they have to be routed directly to him.

Deputies look to return, with changes

LaRocque now works for Tarpon Energy Services as an electrician apprentice during the week, and in his off-time he does welding.

He said former Dunn County Sheriff Don Rockvoy “had a pretty good system” — deputies would spend the first and last two hours of shifts on the main roads, with the middle eight hours in county gravel roads.

“That worked really, really well,” LaRocque said.

While Coker said deputies can’t spend too much time where there’s too little activity, LaRocque said the oil traffic going to well sites in rural areas requires more law enforcement on the backroads. Coker said he is looking into mapping out “hot spots” for crime in the county to better position officers for response times.

“A large portion of the oil traffic … is not all on the pavement,” LaRocque said.

Along the same lines, LaRocque said if elected he’d focus on “getting back to the communities” — like Dunn County’s smaller towns of Dodge, Dunn Center and Halliday.

“I would discuss it with the city council and then take it from there,” he said, “see what their needs are.”

With the drug problems Dunn County is experiencing — labeled by many as the jurisdictions No. 1 issue for law enforcement — LaRocque said he’d get a second police K9.

LaRocque worked for the Rolette County Sheriff’s Department for a number of years before his work at Dunn County. For about a year-and-a-half, he also manned a one-man force in St. John near the Canadian border.

LaRocque was also terminated from his work at Rolette County in June 2012. The sheriff’s termination report cites “numerous conduct issues” as the reason; LaRocque wouldn’t comment.

Gietzen was fired after 27 years as a Dunn County deputy, and now works in safety at MBI Energy Services — something he said utilizes the passion for law enforcement that he had as a deputy. He calls it “quasi law enforcement.”

“We’re very much into safety,” he said. “I’m proud of that.”

He said he’s running for sheriff due to his “innate desire to help the people” — because now, he said, they’re not getting good service.

“I think the people deserve better than what they are getting,” he said.

If elected, “there would be some changes made,” he said, including requiring every current deputy to reapply.

Before his work in Dunn County, Gietzen was a deputy sheriff in Ward County.

He said he wants to add a full rescue unit — with a boat, snowmobile and more — to the department if he’s elected. He also wants to add a division to work strictly with juveniles, including children involved in domestic violence situations. A staff member would help coordinate between schools, social services and the department, he said.

Firings disputed

LaRocque declined to speak about his termination from Dunn County.

“I would love to comment on that but that’s a political issue, and at this point in time I would refrain from commenting on that,” he said.

Coker’s Nov. 22, 2013, termination letter to him describes multiple allegations of LaRocque criticizing the department and coworkers. Coker also points to alleged incidents of LaRocque taking statements off-duty after an incident to be used in a complaint against a fellow deputy; and playing pool with people involved in a bar incident, giving “the obvious impression that (you) have a bias against the DCSD deputies in favor of the arrested party.”

“This behavior cannot be tolerated because it incurs liability for Dunn County, brings discredit to the agency, and undermines the public’s trust and confidence in law enforcement,” Coker wrote.

Gietzen, too, takes issue with incidents used in his firing.

He points to two of the incidents described in his Oct. 25, 2013, written reprimand as being mischaracterized or inaccurate. In one, Coker wrote that Gietzen, while off-duty, directed an on-duty sheriff’s deputy to shoot and kill a trespassing bull. Coker said this “poor judgment” violates the department’s “deadly force” policy. Gietzen, on the other hand, said the bull was endangering a family and put the value of human life over the value of a bull’s.

“A bull is something you don’t mess around with,” he said.

Coker also alleged Gietzen enlisted an intoxicated “posse” to assist in finding a fleeing suspect after a bar fight in Halliday. The group allegedly roughed up the suspect after finding him. But Gietzen said the people weren’t drunk, and he just used his local connections to get the word out that an arrested suspect had fled.

Coker said with LaRocque’s employment history, he wouldn’t have hired him at Dunn County in the first place.

The current sheriff said he came into the leadership role with an open mind, but let LaRocque and Gietzen go because they “wouldn’t get with the game plan.”

But the two former deputies said the game plan is the problem.

LaRocque and Gietzen both said members of the community played a role in their decision to challenge Coker.

“There’s been a lot of people coming to me in the community … (that) basically kinda drove me in that direction,” LaRocque said.

Gietzen was planning on retiring before he decided to throw his hat in the race. But that has changed, he said.

“Loads of people are calling me for help,” he said.