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The primary investigator of officer misbehavior has been busy dealing with the spike in complaints since 2021, when the DCI streamlined the process and made an online complaint form available. (Photo: SD Searchlight / Getty)

Number Of Officer Complaints Moves State To Investigate

PIERRE, S.D. – There are so many complaints about cops now flowing into the Division of Criminal Investigation that the agency has hired a second full-time investigator to handle them.

Former FBI agent Dave Keith was hired to handle allegations of officer misbehavior recently, DCI Director Dan Satterlee said Wednesday during the March meeting of the Law Enforcement Officers Standards and Training Commission in Pierre.

The primary investigator of officer misbehavior has been busy dealing with the spike in complaints since 2021, when the DCI streamlined the process and made an online complaint form available.

The commission heard short rundowns of the 59 complaints from 2023 that were deemed too minor to act on, unfounded, or outside the scope of its authority in the half hour before DCI Director Satterlee announced the new agent.

Those rundowns did not include the names of accused officers. They also did not identify the agencies that employed them beyond noting each as a county, city or state organization, and did not identify where in the state each incident happened beyond east or west of the Missouri River.

Allegations included harassment, unnecessary force, racial profiling, stolen items from citizen vehicles and failure to appropriately follow through on criminal complaints. One involved a sheriff who ceased policing for a time before resigning. Another involved a sheriff’s deputy posting material on Facebook and TikTok deemed inappropriate by his employer.

Special Agent Guy DiBenedetto, the lead investigator for officer misconduct complaints in Pierre, has been “fully employed” dealing with the crush of complaints.

“Every one of these complaints is reviewed,” Satterlee said. “But it takes time.”

Hank Prim of the DCI, who leads its officer training and standards team, said another 27 complaints have landed in Pierre since the start of the year, putting the state on pace to surpass the 2023 record of 114 statewide.

“We’re fortunate to have the extra help because it seems that’s just going to continue to mount,” Prim said.

Five officers give up certification

Prim quickly walked the commission through the reasons behind five decertification agreements, in which an officer surrenders certification voluntarily to avoid a confrontational hearing before the commission.

  • Grace Waters, a former Mitchell telecommunications officer, was decertified voluntarily after an arrest for DUI and contributing alcohol to a minor.
  • Kole Mahoney, a former Platte police officer, gave up his certification over his use of marijuana tied to a traffic crash he was involved in.
  • Cole Larson, a former Yankton police officer, gave up his certification after an act of timecard fraud with an off-duty employer.
  • Joseph Curtin, a former state trooper, was decertified by consent following a DUI and domestic violence arrest.
  • Kipp Stearns, a former Turner County sheriff’s deputy, surrendered his certification after allegations of an illegal search he’d attested to in a court affidavit.

Such “consent agreements” have been useful in clearing the workload for the commission, Prim said.

One other settlement was discussed on Wednesday, but that one allowed the officer to stay an officer on the condition of remedial training.

Former Turner County Sheriff’s Deputy Darrell O’Connor got physical with a farmer who’d been trying to keep his cattle away from a burning tractor, Agent DiBenedetto told the commission. O’Connor had taken it upon himself to respond to a call to a volunteer fire department and hurried to the scene at speeds up to 114 miles an hour.

When the farmer didn’t immediately follow O’Connor’s commands to move away from the tractor, DiBenedetto said, “he wanted to handcuff the farmer.”

The two exchanged words, and O’Connor eventually used a taser to subdue the farmer and arrested him.

O’Connor hadn’t even been dispatched.

“Terrible decision-making on the part of the deputy,” DiBenedetto said.

O’Connor was disciplined by the sheriff with a 14-day suspension. His settlement agreement with the commission comes with a 20-day suspension with credit for those 14 days. The remaining six days will be held in abeyance until he finishes three classes: surviving verbal conflict, response to resistance, and fair and impartial treatment.

The commission voted unanimously to adopt the agreement.

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One win, one loss in contested hearings

Two contested case hearings took place Wednesday.

The first involved an officer named Chase Frank, who filled out several applications for law enforcement employment and certification, starting in 2020. On the departmental applications, he admitted to using marijuana in the past, and was eventually hired by the Winner Police Department.

When he filled out an application for a spot in the basic law enforcement certification course, however, he said he hadn’t used marijuana in the preceding 365 days.

That was in 2020. In October of 2019, he’d puffed on a THC vape pen at his sister’s wedding. He’d admitted to that prior drug use in his employment applications.

But using pot within a year of applying for the certification course bars a person from attending. At one point in Frank’s hearing, Satterlee noted that the instructions about drug use are listed in bold, capital letters on the form.

Frank was admitted to the academy, passed and was certified. The discrepancy was eventually discovered, and its reflection of his moral character was the subject of Wednesday’s hearing.

Frank told Prim over the phone that he knew he’d be denied a spot at the academy with an honest answer, Prim testified. Frank disputed that.He contends that answering “no” on the training course paperwork was an accidental oversight.

“I’m not denying that I put no when I should have put yes,” Frank said. “What I deny is that I did it to deceive the law enforcement training commission.”

Frank, currently employed by the Winner City Jail, told the commission he’s sorry for his mistake and said he’d been as open as possible during the investigation.

The commission voted unanimously to allow him to maintain certification.

The other officer to take the stand on Wednesday did not walk away with his certification.

Tate Fremo had been employed for a short period of time by the Hughes County Jail in April 2022. That was the month he took a preliminary breath test machine and a fistful of plastic blow tubes from the jail without telling his supervisors.

Fremo told the commission he’d taken it home to find and read the manual online, allegedly an attempt to better understand an error message he kept seeing.

He was caught on video taking the device and the tubes. He was fired and charged with petty theft, a crime for which he pleaded guilty under the terms of a plea agreement that would see the charge scrubbed from his record for good behavior.

Employees are not allowed to take county property home without permission, Hughes County Sheriff Patrick Callahan testified. He also testified that he’d given Fremo a second chance already, specifically when he’d walked into the jail’s intake area with a firearm.

“There can’t be a more serious matter,” than bringing a weapon into a secure area, Callahan said.

Katilin Cummings, the Pierre detective who questioned Fremo about the incident, told the commission that Fremo had been honest about having taken the device, but said “I don’t believe he was honest in regards to the reason he took the PBT machine.”

Under questioning from Fremo’s attorney, Jason Glodt, Callahan said it’s true that some employees take home items like handcuffs or tasers, but only when those items are part of their official duties. Glodt argued that the jail employee handbook is vague, and that Fremo made a “big mistake” out of confusion about the rules.

Fremo testified that he sat with the device at his computer, looking up error messages on YouTube and reading the manual, blowing into the device with the tubes in a trial-and-error exercise.

Kelli Marnette, the DCI’s lawyer in the case, asked Fremo why he wouldn’t just ask another jailer for help. Callahan had said that some of his jailers had been giving breathalyzer tests since the early 1990s.
“I just decided myself that I was going to figure it out,” Fremo said.

The commission decided that Fremo’s actions were enough to keep him out of law enforcement. They voted unanimously for decertification.

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