Fargo police employee under investigation
FARGO — The Fargo Police Department has started an internal investigation after an employee in the records division released 911 audio recordings from a recent homicide to The Forum of Fargo-Moorhead — recordings that officials would have otherwise not made public, a police spokesman said.
Lt. Joel Vettel said the employee, who isn’t a police officer, did not take the required step of receiving approval from a supervisor in the detective unit before telling the Red River Regional Dispatch Center to send the recordings to the newspaper. Because the case is open, police supervisors would have withheld the recordings because they consider them to be part of the homicide investigation, Vettel said.
The 911 recordings were calls reporting a June 26 shooting at a home in north Fargo that left Randall Doehner dead. Doehner’s roommate and cousin, Christopher Hampton, faces a murder charge in the case. Hampton, 24, has claimed he shot Doehner, 28, in self-defense because Doehner pulled a pistol on him, authorities said. In the 911 calls, Hampton detailed to dispatchers the shooting moments after it occurred.
After requesting the 911 recordings, The Forum received them July 1. The paper quoted from the recordings in a story that ran in print Thursday, and the audio recordings themselves were made available on the paper’s website.
A Fargo police officer noticed the story Thursday and brought it to the attention of Vettel, a supervisor in the detective unit. Vettel also received inquiries from other local media outlets seeking the recordings, but he denied those requests, Vettel said.
The records division employee who handled The Forum’s request had a dispatch center employee email the recordings to Forum reporter Adrian Glass-Moore, Vettel said. The director of the dispatch center, Byron Sieber, said his employee did not violate any policies and will not be punished.
“We followed our procedures, our policies as we always do,” Sieber said.
The Fargo Police Department’s internal probe, which Vettel initiated Thursday, will take two to three weeks to complete. It will look into whether the department’s policies are flawed and whether the records division employee was at fault, Vettel said. Ultimately the employee, whose name police declined to release, may be disciplined or fired, the lieutenant said.Vettel said police do not believe the leak of the 911 recordings compromised the homicide investigation, nor do they feel the leak was intentional.
“There’s no malice,” he said. “It was a mistake.”
Nonetheless, police are taking the matter seriously.
“The integrity of the information coming out of our offices is extremely important,” Vettel said. “It is concerning anytime we have a breach in this type of information. It can jeopardize a number of things.”
Gary Euren, one of the Cass County prosecutors handling the murder case, said it’s premature to say whether the leak will affect the case, including whether it could lead to a change of venue for a possible trial.
Vettel said the only time Fargo police release 911 recordings that are part of an open case is when doing so would benefit the investigation. If an investigation is closed, the police will release transcripts — not audio — of 911 recordings, the lieutenant said.
North Dakota law says a 911 recording can be withheld at the discretion of authorities. “However, upon request,” the law also says, “a person may listen to the audio recording, but may not copy or record the audio. A person also may request a written transcript of the audio recording.”
Jack McDonald, an attorney for the North Dakota Newspaper Association, said the intent of the law was to keep people from obtaining audio 911 recordings and misusing them. “It was an attempt to protect the privacy of some of those people that are calling 911,” he said.
McDonald interprets the law as allowing the public to listen to any 911 recordings and receive a transcript of them. He said police often use the law to keep 911 recordings private by saying that they’re investigatory records. It’s a practice he disputes.
“You can’t take what’s a public record and make it confidential simply because you’re using it for an investigation,” he said.