State officials in Pierre on Thursday, Dec. 13, revoked the law enforcement certification of Marshall County Sheriff Dale Elsen, a 41-year veteran of the department, for “engaging in a pattern of sexual harassment.”
Hughes County Sheriff Mike Leidholt is the longest serving member of of the South Dakota Law Enforcement Officers Standards and Training Commission. In his 16 years on the 11-member commission, it has never revoked the law enforcement certification of a “sitting sheriff,” Leidholt said on Thursday.
All nine voting members of the Standards and Training Commission voted to revoke Elsen’s certification after hearing testimony from Elsen, who was accompanied by four Marshall County Commissioners and other supporters.
Elsen, who is 63 and has been sheriff since 1983 after six years as a deputy, admitted making the sexually explicit comments and jokes, but said he’s changed his ways and wants to serve out his new four-year term, after getting 83 percent of the vote in November.
The official complaint came after an investigation by Special Agent Guy Di Benedetto of the attorney general’s division of criminal investigation. Benedetto, who interviewed deputies in Britton, said over the past two years, Elsen:
1: Made sexually explicit statements to other law enforcement officers, sometimes in front of defendants or inmates. The comments included saying certain deputies “wanted” to see other men naked and at least one deputy complained to Elsen about such a comment.
2.) Handed out calendars with photos of bikini-clad women to deputies for their squad vehicles.
3.) Made sexual comments about women’s bodies to other officers, sometimes as the women walked by, using lewd terms.
4.) Asked a woman who was a dispatcher if she had sex during a recent vacation, because she had “a glow about her.”
5.) Took a “wind-up penis toy” out of a desk drawer to show to a deputy.
6.) Showed other offices a fake badge, from the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally, that showed a woman in “a provocative pose” and made inappropriate comments about it.
7.) “Made lewd comments about evidence in sex cases to other law enforcement officers.”
Elsen, asked formally, point by point about the allegation by Pierre attorney Paul Bachand of Pierre, admitted to them in large part, although he recalled certain details differently, such as it was not his desk from which he took the wind-up sex toy, but another desk.
In one case, Elsen disputed the account of a deputy who said Elsen made lewd comments about a female county employee’s breasts, telling the state investigator he never would have said that about that woman because “I’m a boob guy, and she doesn’t have any breasts,” Di Benedetto testified on Thursday.
Elsen testified that an “insurance company” representative had interviewed him about complaints from county employees about his comments. He also has met more than once with the county commission over concerns about his behavior and comments, Elsen said.
He said when he started as a deputy in the sheriff’s office in 1977, it was common for officers to joke about sexual matters as a way to deal with the pressure of the job, Elsen told the commission on Thursday. He rarely heard anyone complain, Elsen said.
But under questioning by his attorney, Brad Schreiber of Pierre, Elsen said he realized times have changed. “I’m a big supporter of the ‘Me Too,” movement,” Elsen said. He’s led the effort to provide training on sexual harassment and bullying in the workplace for all county employees, Elsen said.
He asked the standards and training commission to let him keep his law enforcement certification. “I would like to at least finish out two or the next four years,” Elsen said. “And then quietly walk away as a law enforcement officer and not blemish the office of Marshall County Sheriff, and spend time with my grandkids.”
Elsen gave the commission several letters of support from county residents, including his wife as well as a former county employee who Elsen said knew he had made sexually comments about her.
Commission members expressed concern to Elsen that he had created bad conditions for county employees by his pattern of sexual harassment, several asking him questions about how he could manage his own office now with that history of bad conduct.
Elsen said he has not heard many complaints and cited his overwhelming election victory as evidence that most people in the county approved of the job he has been doing.
“He’s been a good sheriff for a long time and has done a good job,” Marshall County Commissioner Paul Symens told the Capital Journal during a break in Elsen’s hearing. Symens and Butch Wegleitner made the 220-mile drive from Britton to show support for Elsen, as did a handful of others.
“I worked 20 years as a deputy for the sheriff and never had a problem,” Wegleitner said.
He and Symens said Elsen admitted he used inappropriate language at times, but that it has been the deputy who ran against Elsen in November who has been creating problems in the sheriff’s office and in the county court house in general for the past two years.
But after hearing evidence from both sides, the law enforcement officers standards and training commission voted unanimously to revoke Elsen’s certificate. He can appeal but has not decided if he will, Schreiber told the Capital Journal.