Nationwide scrutiny of police behavior is complicating the recruitment and retainment of officers for some departments, particularly smaller ones such as those in Twin Cities suburbs.
In Anoka County, applications for deputy jobs have plummeted. And a college that trains many of Minnesota’s officers has seen several students drop out after their families expressed fears for their safety.
“My concern is as we look forward and we see this — for lack of a better term — war being waged on our protectors, the good-hearted people are not going to want to take on the job anymore,” said Anoka County Sheriff James Stuart.
The pullback isn’t universal. The state’s Board of Peace Officer Standards and Training said it’s actually seeing more potential recruits taking licensing exams. And larger Minnesota departments still attract adequate numbers of recruits.
Other factors also play a role in the changing dynamics, law enforcement officials say. More officers are retiring as the result of changes in pension laws and funding, and with more police jobs available, recruits are likely to focus on the higher-paid ones in bigger cities.
But departments around the country have been under a harsh magnifying glass since an unarmed black teenager, Michael Brown, was shot and killed last summer in Ferguson, Mo., by a white police officer. In the wake of that and other highly publicized incidents, officers face a far more negative and suspicious climate, said Stuart, who has seen deputy applications fall by almost half in recent years.
People lined streets following the 9/11 terrorist attacks “honoring the heroes who were willing to lay down their lives for other people,” he said.
“The people wearing the badges are still the same people,” Stuart said. “And now we turn on the news and we see those same streets lined with people spitting on the cops.”
The trend is playing out nationally too, where overall the number of applicants for police jobs is lower and retaining current officers has become more challenging, said Bill Johnson, executive director of the National Association of Police Organizations.
“The unfair criticism of police and, from our point of view, the painting of a very broad brush that all officers and police departments are racist or brutal based on [a handful] of cases … and these targeted murders of police officers, are making it difficult to attract and retain qualified officers,” Johnson said. “There’s a growing sense among police that it’s not worth it anymore.”
‘This is a good job’
In Minnesota, smaller suburban departments have been among the first to feel the pinch.
The Ramsey Police Department received only 53 applications for a recent open position that in 2012 had attracted many more, according to the north metro city’s human resource manager, Colleen Lasher.
In 2011, the Anoka County Sheriff’s Office, the county saw 386 applicants for detention-officer jobs. This year, there were only 194 applicants. For licensed deputies, the county saw 522 applicants in 2010; in 2015, there were only 294.
“This is a good job,” Stuart said. “There’s stability.” But in smaller departments like his, the pay is less than that at some larger departments that are also hiring, so applicants go for those jobs.
Hastings Police Chief Bryan Schafer said there are many reasons why his southeast metro department is now averaging about 140 applicants per job opening compared with 300 in 2012.
“Some could be the current climate and negative image of police,” Schafer said in an e-mail. “But I believe most can be attributed to more jobs throughout the metro, so applicants can be more selective.”
Recently retired Fridley Police Chief Don Abbott remains optimistic, saying he’s still seeing top-quality applicants.
“The good news is the people who say, ‘I want to be a police officer. I want to serve my community,’ are not being dissuaded,” Abbott said. “That’s good for now, but we need more applicants to make good [hiring] choices.”
Shifts in the classroom
At the front end of the process to become a police officer, interest still appears strong. In recent years, there has been an uptick in the number of people taking Minnesota’s mandatory licensing exams.
Nathan Gove, executive director of the state’s POST board, said that from Jan. 1, 2010, to June 30, 2015, the board gave 4,983 peace officer exams to 4,642 examinees (some took the exam more than once). Only 4,381 became license-eligible (261 failed the exam one or more times and never passed), and as of Aug. 12, about 46 percent (1,960 individuals) had received a license and been hired.
While acknowledging that some departments are seeing smaller applicant pools, Gove said more people took the exam in 2014 than in any other year since 2010. As of Thursday, 643 people were eligible for a license.
“We are not necessarily seeing this decline; in fact, in this past year [given all of the publicity about police shootings], we [thought we would see] that number fall off from the previous year, but it increased,” Gove said.
Once an applicant is in the educational system, however, there may be second thoughts. Hennepin Technical College, which trains about half of the state’s police officers, saw seven students drop out of its law enforcement program during the 2015 spring semester because their families feared for the students’ safety, said Mylan Masson, director of the college’s law enforcement and criminal justice education center.
“They still wanted to do the job, but their families didn’t” want them to, she said. “I think that is where some of the people have thought about it and said, ‘Maybe this is not the way I want to go.’ ”
Because it wasn’t able to fill classrooms, the program recently limited the number of students admitted from 128 to 96. Masson said she is also hearing that more midcareer officers — those who have been in the force for 20 years — are looking at other professions.
“They’ve done everything right all along, and now people are blaming them for doing the right thing,” Masson said. “It’s just getting tiresome.”
“We are always under discretion and we should be,” she said. “We are given privileges and rights that no one else has.”
Lt. Bob Kroll, head of Minneapolis’ police union, said two weeks ago there were 2,088 officers eligible for hire statewide, but the climate toward police remains “a deterrent for people coming in.”
“It’s a job right now that everybody with no training or experience seems to know how to do it better than us,” Kroll said. “Everybody has their own opinion on how law enforcement should be done.”