Dispute over policing leaves potential law enforcement gap in Griggs Co.

Despite resignation, sheriff set to run for office in forthcoming election

Dispute over policing leaves potential law enforcement gap in Griggs Co.
Complaints over what some in the community called aggressive policing occurred on April 13 when a charity event was held at the Northern Lights Masonic Lodge in downtown Cooperstown. (Photo Michael Standaert.)

COOPERSTOWN, N.D. – Griggs County is without a sheriff or a deputy sheriff and will be served by a county coroner until a law professional can be found.

The situation raises questions not only for Griggs County, but other smaller communities across the state about what the proper amount of policing should be, particularly during events where alcohol is consumed, and how communication between county officials and the public should be handled. 

Both the sheriff and deputy sheriff of Griggs County resigned and left their positions May 16 following a series of confrontations with the Griggs County Commission over complaints it received about aggressive policing around a community event. 

Sheriff Michael Beaver, who was appointed to the position in January, counters he was simply being proactive and that his policies have possibly prevented crimes such as impaired driving. 

County coroner Rick Cushman is tabbed to fill the sheriff’s office void until a long-term replacement is found, or a candidate wins in the June primary and November general election. 

Beaver is currently the only name on the ballot for Griggs County sheriff. County auditor Samantha Larson said there are potential write in campaigns for other candidates, with those getting 14 or more votes able to get on the ballot for November. 

Appointed in January to fill an open position, Griggs County Sheriff Michael Beaver resigned on May 16 after friction over policing with the county commission. Beaver is intent on continuing his run for the elected sheriff position despite the resignation. (Photo provided by Michael Beaver.)

Cushman said he was prepared to take over the position until the outcome of the election is determined, and passed on commenting as the situation currently stands. 

Debra Dahl, mayor of Hannaford, said she appreciated the extra law enforcement presence Beaver provided.

“We haven’t had a lot of law enforcement in this county, and when these guys came on, they just kind of started cleaning house, and some people didn’t like it,” Dahl said. 

“I’m really disappointed. I think it could have been handled better and maybe (the commission) could have worked with them a little bit,” Dahl said of the outcome. 

Paul Painter, mayor of Cooperstown and owner of the Pizza Ranch there, hoped the county of 2,300 residents would be able to get local law enforcement soon, but didn’t want to comment further “because I’ve got a business in town,” he said. 

“In the past when we were short, they had (police) from other counties, so we always had coverage at least. So, hopefully they’ll be able to do that again,” Painter said. 

Troy Olson, a candidate for one of the two commission seats up for election, said he felt the county would be better off finding different people for the sheriff’s department. 

Olson said he wasn’t worried about the positions being open until replacements are found, with nearby counties and the highway patrol potentially lending a hand. 

“I do hope that a good fit for the needs of the county can be found,” he said. 

Deputy Tyler Rispa, who also resigned, said he’d spoken with surrounding county law enforcement and doesn’t believe they’re interested in stepping in to fill the gaps. 

“When no one is willing to help a county, there are obviously underlying conditions as for why they’re not willing to help,” Rispa said. 

The night in question 

The complaints primarily stem from policing around a community charity event at the historic Northern Lights Masonic Lodge in downtown Cooperstown on April 13 called “The Smoker.” 

While 400 tickets were apparently sold for the function that’s been held for over two decades, the police presence led to many no-shows at the all you can eat and drink event, according to statements from residents at the commission meetings. 

Griggs County Commission Chairman John Wakefield called the action a “saturation patrol” that targeted a specific community organization, thus sparking outcry from some residents and patrons of the event.

Prior to the event, Beaver requested assistance from the North Dakota Highway Patrol in an e-mail. 

Initially, at the April 22 commission meeting, Beaver downplayed any focus on the event at the lodge and said he only requested one officer from the highway patrol. 

That e-mail was presented to the commission at the April 22 meeting with a portion redacted. County state’s attorney Jayme Tenneson later provided an unredacted version at the May 6 meeting, and also passed that along to NDNC. 

In that e-mail, Beaver requested “at least two troopers” and specifically mentioned the event at the lodge. The e-mail also mentioned concerns that people would eventually go to downtown bars “we have been having issues with” for overserving, with one suspected of after-hours service. 

“I didn’t feel comfortable releasing that e-mail, and there was information in there that was part of an ongoing investigation,” Beaver said. “It was information that was being investigated, that’s why I felt the need to redact it.” 

On the evening of Saturday, April 13, into the early hours of the following day, 25 traffic stops were conducted by Deputy Ripsa and three highway patrol officers, with seven citations issued and no arrests made. 

Several residents complained at commission meetings that infractions for something like a non-functioning license plate light were too aggressive, particularly around a major community event, and the fact no driving under the influence (DUI) arrests were made showed people were being responsible.  

Other residents, like Doreen Eckman, were more supportive of those actions. 

“They haven’t supported the sheriff’s department since Beaver took office, and they appointed him because no one else wanted to be sheriff in this place,” Eckman said. 

Beaver considers the actions that evening successful prevention measures. 

“My idea with that event was just to make a presence,” Beaver said. “And hopefully to have people have that second thought of, maybe they should be more responsible before they get behind the wheel. I think that was accomplished.” 

The complaints about that night also appear to have been an ongoing issue. In early February, Beaver released a statement on the department’s Facebook page addressing “concerns from citizens in regards to our presence” and allegations of “pulling people over for no reason” and “watching bars to arrest someone.” 

In that statement, Beaver said presence and visibility were the best proven deterrents of crime and that the majority of citizens were supportive. 

The sheriff’s department also put up a post on consecutive days prior to the April 13 event advertising a local designated driver service. 

Across North Dakota, there were over 4,200 DUI arrests in 2022, according to official state crime statistics from the most recent year available, a 4.28% increase over 2021. 

North Dakota regularly registers among the top states for DUI arrests in the country, and around 38% of fatal accidents in the state involve alcohol. 

Griggs County had an average of 6.7 drunken driving arrests per year in the last decade, according to the data. 

Aggressive or proactive? 

Beaver said due to a revolving door that’s seen several sheriffs and deputies come and go in the past five years, some in the community are not used to the increased police presence. 

“Is it overaggressive for here, from what they’re used to? Yeah, and I understand exactly where the people are coming from who are saying that,” Beaver said. “When you look at other counties in the area, even smaller counties, I don’t think it’s overexaggerated in any capacity.” 

Beaver, originally from the town of Binford in Griggs County, served eight years in the Army National Guard after graduating from high school, then served as a deputy sheriff in Wells and Eddy counties, with nearly five years in each location. 

Asked whether the sheriff’s office or the county commission could have handled the dispute over the April 13 event better, Wakefield said this question should be posed to the citizens and that they’ll answer come the time of the election. 

“All we can say for certain is a large portion of the citizens disagree with how that was handled,” Wakefield said. “If that bond is broken, if it has been broken, then that’s something the sheriff and the citizens work out in the election.” 

Wakefield said the public gets to decide the intensity of law enforcement at the ballot box.  

“The long-term sheriffs in these small communities, if you look, they’re the ones that have blended in and done real well,” he said.  

While Beaver agreed there was a need for more discussion with the community concerning law enforcement’s role and balancing the opinion of community members, he said the level of policing on the night in question was appropriate. 

“Looking back on everything, I think communication is No. 1,” Beaver said. “And that's what I've really taken away from this.” 

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