North Dakota Sheriff Gary Schwartzenberger was placed on interim suspension while working at the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL) protest on Wednesday night, pending his removal from office by the governor, according to the Bismarck Tribune.
McKenzie County officials recommended stripping Schwartzenberger of his job and badge after investigating numerous complaints about the sheriff from his employees and others in the county. They say an independent investigation found grounds to remove the sheriff based on “harassment and intimidation” and that Schwartzenberger fostered a “quasi-military environment.”
The county’s acting State’s Attorney Todd Schwarz has alleged that Sheriff Schwartzenberger, who has been working at the site of the DAPL protests, is guilty of “misconduct, malfeasance, crime in office, neglect of duty or gross incompetency.” The McKenzie county commission has also voted in support of the governor’s petition for removal.
Schwartzenberger is accused of “forming a workplace environment of bullying and a militant style of policing,” KVRR reports.
A third-party investigation by the Bureau of Criminal Investigation (BCI) found that claims of bullying and retaliation within the sheriff’s office were substantiated and recommended removing Schwartzenberger from office. The sheriff tried fighting the county’s removal action in court last month, but the court ruled against him.
The investigators also recommended placing Lt. Michael Schmitz of the sheriff’s office on unpaid administrative leave with the possibility of termination.
Governor Jack Dalrymple ordered the interim suspension of Schwartzenberger based on a recommendation from Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem after McKenzie County requested the sheriff be removed in October. The Attorney General said the allegations have been investigated by the BCI and that he recommended following through on removal.
BCI agents tracked down Schwartzenberger to enforce the suspension late Wednesday. He was working near Cannon Ball on the DAPL protest enforcement.
The governor told Sheriff Schwartzenberger in a letter dated Wednesday that he agreed with the Attorney General’s findings and recommended an immediate suspension.
“[I]t is in the best interests of the state that you be suspended from the performance of duty immediately upon receipt of this notice and until a final decision on removal is made.”
Stenehjem said that an assigned prosecutor will draft a formal complaint. Once that is filed, a special commissioner will conduct a removal hearing within 30 days. The Attorney General also recommended Schwartzenberger be suspended immediately while awaiting the final decision.
Sheriff Schwartzenberger has also been accused of using county funds for his own personal use.
While Schwartzenberger and his officers have been working enforcement at DAPL protest sites, he is not the sheriff in charge of the area. Morton County sheriff Kyle Kirchmeier is head of the law enforcement response at the pipeline protests. Kirchmeier has been widely criticized for what many consider excessive violence towards the unarmed protesters.
According to Sheriff Kirchmeier, officers from counties all over North Dakota and six other states — Wisconsin, South Dakota, Minnesota, Wyoming, Indiana, and Nebraska — are working at the DAPL protest sites.
Not all of the people of McKenzie county are in support of removing Schwartzenberger from office. In an opinion piece in the Dunn County Herald, Dunn County State Attorney Pat Merriman referred to the sheriff as a “straight arrow” and “extremely popular.”
Merriman quoted resident Chris McCullough, calling the move to remove Schwartzenberger “a witch hunt motivated by a personality conflict (between) county officials and the sheriff,” adding that officials “need to stop fighting and start realizing that we like this man.”
Schwartzenberger, who was a marine for nearly 30 years, ran against local tribal member and fellow officer Troy White Owl in 2014, according to the Dickinson Press. White Owl was also a tribal officer with the Three Affiliated Tribes and served with police departments in Watford City and Fargo.
Early in November, county commissioner Kathy Skarda publicly asked the rest of the board to rescind their recommendations, Williston Herald reports. Skarda told the other commissioners that she’d heard from 300 county residents who were not in support of actions against Schwartzenberger or Schmitz.
“I respectfully ask that we would reconsider our stance,” Skarda said.
“Let the people, the public, recall the sheriff if they don’t think he is doing his job.”
There was no support for her motion by the rest of the board.
[Featured Image by Morton County Sheriff’s Department/AP Images]