By Bryce Haugen
At a special meeting Monday, Sebeka City Council members unanimously accepted the retirement of the town’s police chief, who was recently cited for driving while intoxicated, and appointed a part-time officer as interim chief.
After accepting the notice without discussion, the four council members in attendance - Norbert Ament was absent - approved retirement benefits, ordered new locks for city buildings Swenson had access to and discussed the future of the police department.
They agreed to advertise for a new police chief after amending the job description to require candidates to possess a valid Minnesota driver’s license. The application period will end March 31.
Minnesota law requires a part-time officers to report to a “chief law enforcement officer.” Mayor David Anderson said the Wadena County Sheriff’s Office indicated it was willing to oversee Sebeka’s part-time officers if they demonstrated the proper certifications. Part-timers that didn’t qualify - it was unclear Monday if any fully meet the county requirements - would be temporarily sidelined until a new chief is hired. That happened last summer when Swenson was suspended following a domestic assault charge.
Sebeka’s three active part-time officers attended the Monday meeting and said they would put in extra hours to provide law enforcement in the city if they were allowed to.
The council members briefly considered asking the Menagha police chief to act as supervisor in the interim, but Anderson said getting approval might take too much time.
“This is probably going to roll very quickly,” he said.
Council member Lowell Stewart said the city should appoint the most experienced part-time officer, Tighe Lane, as interim chief. Lane’s been with the department since September 2010.
“We need someone who can supervise those two and he’s the one who can do it,” Stewart said.
Anderson said having a police presence based in Sebeka would be the best option.
“I’m sure Wadena County would try to accommodate us,” he said, “but if we can do the same thing here, why not?”
The council unanimously approved Lane’s appointment.
Outside of the meeting, Lane said he’s ready for his new role, which he will be balancing with his full-time job as a manager at Henry’s Foods in Alexandria.
“I’m comfortable with accepting the position and stepping up,” he said.
Lane said Swenson “was a good cop. The other stuff - that was his personal life.”
But the negative attention Swenson’s personal life brought to the department, Lane said, made it difficult for Sebeka’s other officers to command respect among their law enforcement peers and the general public.
“No one thinks we’re real cops because of who are supervisor was,” Lane said. “... We’ve had to prove ourselves that we are upstanding individuals and officers.”
He said the presence of the three part-time officers at the meeting swayed the council to decide to go with local officers rather than with sheriff’s deputies based 14 miles away in Wadena.
“It’s a question of availability,” Lane said. “It’s more advantageous for the people to have someone close and local.”
Sebeka resident Jim Murphy said he attended the meeting because he’d heard rumblings that the council might decide to disband the police department and have Wadena County permanently takeover law enforcement. That would lead to increased homeowner’s insurance rates, he said.
“I think they made the right decision …,” Murphy said. “I didn’t have to say anything.”
He said he’s also happy the council accepted Swenson’s retirement so the town can put the controversy behind it.
“It’s better for everyone that we’re moving on and not dragging it out. There’s enough drama in a small town that it’s good to have closure on something,” Murphy said, adding “I wish (Swenson) the best, I really do.”
A New York Mills police officer cited Swenson for DWI on Feb. 26. His arraignment is scheduled for March 18 at the Otter Tail County Courthouse. Swenson’s fifth degree domestic assault case from last summer is ongoing, with a jury trial scheduled for 9 a.m. May 20 at the same courthouse.
Several attempts to reach Swenson in the past week were unsuccessful.
In an interview last year after the domestic assault arrest and another for disorderly conduct, Swenson told the Wadena Pioneer Journal he intended to retire on April 1, 2015 because of work-related injuries, difficulty keeping up with younger officers and the politics that go with the job.
“(I) think 30 years is enough,” he said. “I wanna do something else.”