FARGO — Everyone wants their pound of flesh when it comes to former Deputy Police Chief Todd “Ozzy” Osmundson. Or at least that's how he tells it.
Under pressure from the public eye, his boss suspended him. Fellow officers turned on him. Some Black Lives Matter activists demand criminal charges against him.
This all started after Osmundson went undercover reportedly without permission on May 30 during the Fargo Marches for George Floyd protest and the ensuing downtown riot. He received a one-week suspension from the Fargo Police Department, and he subsequently resigned Thursday, June 4.
Osmundson, a deputy chief since 2006, knows he’s being scrutinized for “copaganda,” or the image of him supporting peaceful protesters in the afternoon of May 30 while in uniform, only to dress in plainclothes and infiltrate rioters’ ranks later that night.
“Everyone is asking for my head,” Osmundson said. “Black Lives Matter wants my head, and the police department is coming apart. The community is in an uproar, and we need to keep the city from burning down.”
The 31-year veteran cop is now speaking out, saying long-term, “deep-seated” biases that area police officers have toward people of color need to change.
With about 180 Fargo police officers focused on enforcement, and only four in community policing, monies aren’t being spent wisely, he said. “We invest millions into the enforcement aspect to keep crime down, but just a tiny bit to gain the trust of young guys. We need to flip that," Osmundson said.
Mayor Tim Mahoney was contacted for comment on this story, but he referred the paper to a news release addressing Black Lives Matter activists' request for an independent review of Osmundson's conduct. The mayor and city officials, along with police, will review any findings surrounding the events of May 30, according to the release. Multiple phone messages left for Chief David Todd were not returned.
'The change in heart'
About 6:30 a.m. the day of the Fargo Marches for George Floyd protest, Osmundson messaged Chief Todd encouraging all law enforcement to march with and show support for the protesters, according to a text message screenshot Osmundson shared.
Since Osmundson’s resignation from the police department, he said he’s been trying to learn how bias may have influenced police response to the protest and riot, and he said his learning curve is steep.
He met with Black Lives Matter organizers on Sunday afternoon, June 7. Separately, he invited other people involved in the protest to his home to talk, and to answer questions. He’s come out publicly on social media saying he wants to right the wrongs of nearly three decades of policing.
Before May 30, however, Osmundson admits he disliked Colin Kaepernick, the civil rights activist and NFL quarterback, taking a knee during the national anthem. He believed Black Lives Matter was "organized crime." He thought most Native Americans were drunks that at times deserved an extra twist on the handcuffs, he said.
“We get ingrained in bias and profiling. Even today, if I’m pulling up, and I see a 30-year-old white man in a sedan with four new car tires, I don’t think anything of it. I go one block further and I see a black man in a Cadillac with four new tires, I wonder, ‘Where did he steal those from?’” Osmundson said.
“It is a built-in bias. And I have not treated every Native American properly either,” he said.
He said the reason he did not speak out against bias in the Fargo Police Department before his resignation was because of the rank-and-file structure built into law enforcement. We’re “basically trained not to break from rank and file ever,” he said.
Osmundson said he fell prey to bias because, as a police officer, he saw so much of the darker side of life.
He said he had a psychological exam 31 years ago when he joined the police force, but not one since. Rookie late-night shifts combined with overexposure to criminals instills an unbalanced perspective in many police officers, he said.
“Our souls that were once loving become hard,” Osmundson said. “We need to balance those interactions, then we can maintain peace officers throughout their careers, then they won’t have deep-seated biases toward people of color."
“I didn’t understand until this weekend. At the protest, I started seeing Kaepernick jerseys, that’s when my daughters said that kneeling had nothing to do with Derek Chauvin," Osmundson said, referring to the Minneapolis police officer who knelt on Floyd's neck for several minutes before he died.
Osmundson's daughter, Nichole, described the changes she’s seen in her father in a Facebook post.
“I have seen him admit to his past biases. I have seen him willing to voice this new understanding despite backlash. Most of us never have the guts to say 'I was wrong,' but I’ve witnessed him do this Every. Single. Day,” she wrote.
“For those of you questioning if it’s genuine, I hope you continue to hold my family accountable. For those of you who don’t understand the change in heart or think this is a betrayal of police, I hope you will continue to listen and learn from others. I hope you will take the time to hear my dad’s heart. Caring for law enforcement and realizing police reform is needed are not polar opposites.”
Protest at the police station
When Osmundson first heard protesters were marching toward Fargo police headquarters at 25th Street and First Avenue North, he thought he knew what they wanted, he said. Images of protesters torching the Minneapolis Police Department's Third Precinct were fresh in his mind from the day before.
“I was concerned with the peaceful march (in Fargo) when it stopped becoming a march and turned into a protest against the police department. Then every officer thought it was ‘burn the police department down,’” Osmundson said.
Prepared for 300 protesters, the thousands who showed up surprised the department, he said. "We didn’t understand. Why are you marching in Fargo? Go march in Minneapolis.”
When the protesters arrived at headquarters, he grabbed a camera to photograph the crowd, but when he focused the lens, he saw faces he knew: his daughter’s friends.
“And I thought, ‘Why are these kids here and angry at the police department?’ My daughter had friends out there. You have to understand, my police training taught me to believe that Black Lives Matter was organized crime,” Osmundson said.
Something broke inside him when he realized he didn’t understand what was happening, he said. He saw a sign he agreed with, “One Race, The Human Race,” and jumped onto a concrete platform to hold it high.
“My daughters taught me that black lives matter, your life matters, but we have a privileged life. Black lives matter because they’re the ones who have had all the injustice. I can now say black lives matter and not hesitate. I get it. But before, nobody told me that and that’s why I’m willing to lose my job," he said.
“But I wish I had grabbed a Black Lives Matter sign. I do."
'They would have gone home'
Sitting around Osmundson’s dining room table on Sunday, his friend Claude Vyomuugu and others — all young, all black and all Fargoans — listened carefully before asking questions.
Vyomuugu explained why the May 30 riot never should have happened.
Take a long history of racial profiling, add a skirmish line with police in riot gear, holding truncheons and shooting tear gas, and the law enforcement presence alone was provocation, Vyomuugu said.
“I told officers that day, stay calm, and people will go home. Officers were the ones putting anger into people,” Vyomuugu said.
“I went out there to protect lives and property,” Osmundson said of his decision to go undercover. He changed out of his uniform into civilian clothes before 1 p.m. “I wanted to learn more. I went out there as a (public information officer) to make sure people didn’t get run over.”
Osmundson said he alerted incident commanders that he was marching undercover with protesters as early as 2:22 p.m. “As a deputy chief, I’m free to make decisions, and have been for 15 years,” he said.
Osmundson believes the riot could have been prevented. "If we had been down there personally engaging (protesters), they would have gone home,” he said.
“Eighteen people arrested,” Osmundson said. “I’d like to ask them, have you ever harmed a police officer or thrown a rock like that before? I don’t think all of those people had launched a rock at an officer before."
“The problem is police are pretty much feeling we are supposed to be the community, but we end up being cops and we tell you what to do because we know what’s best. But I’m committed to fix that,” Osmundson said.
“I was them for 31 years, and I back them and they’re wonderful, but they’re ignorant, and now they need to be educated."