Anger is running high in Forest Lake over a proposal to eliminate the city’s police department and contract instead for law enforcement services with the Washington County Sheriff’s Office.
Residents have packed City Hall to protest the possible loss of local control amid what some of them said was deepening community concern over drug and alcohol problems and crimes such as sex trafficking.
Some carried signs, such as those from Citizens Opposed to Police Shutdown, proclaiming their discontent.
“Those who protect and serve should be accountable to us, not the county,” said Jesse Johnson, a Forest Lake business owner. “It’s a slippery slope to give control away to the next level of government.”
An open house on the proposal will be held 5 to 7 p.m. Tuesday at the Forest Lake City Center, 1408 Lake St. S. No date has yet been set for a City Council vote, said City Administrator Aaron Parrish.
The proposal to disband the police began with a city personnel committee meeting in January. City officials asked Washington County Sheriff Bill Hutton to submit a memo on costs and staffing, should the City Council decide to contract with his office.
Hutton said the Sheriff’s Office didn’t initiate the Forest Lake discussion but merely responded to the city’s request, as it would to any Washington County city wanting similar contract information.
“It’s their decision, it’s a local decision if they want to move forward,” he said. “There’s no backdoor planning on this.”
Parrish said city staffers are currently reviewing the proposal.
“The two things I have consistently heard from the City Council is the desire to evaluate cost savings and to evaluate what opportunities might exist for enhancing service to residents,” he said.
Several cities in the county already contract with the Sheriff’s Office, including nearby Hugo.
Most recently, Newport overcame some opposition and disbanded its police force in favor of enforcement by the Sheriff’s Office, but that city has considerably fewer people than Forest Lake’s 18,000 residents.
The Forest Lake police budget this year is just over $4 million, with city taxpayers covering about $3.3 million.
Police Chief Rick Peterson said his department “has been operating at a very fiscally responsible manner over the years,” and that his budget compares well with similar-sized cities such as Stillwater, Rosemount, Farmington and Elk River.
The Sheriff’s Office proposal anticipates an annual cost of about $2.9 million, with one-time “implementation costs” of $87,577.
The county proposal would put 25 sworn officers into Forest Lake, matching the current number on the police force. Those deputies would work in Forest Lake and join the community, said Hutton, who was an Oakdale police officer for 23 years before being elected sheriff in 2006.
“I know the need for community policing,” said Hutton, who is resigning as sheriff on April 30 to become executive director of the Minnesota Sheriffs’ Association. The County Board has appointed his chief deputy, Dan Starry, to replace him.
To many residents in Forest Lake, trading blue uniforms for brown means a loss of community pride. An online petition in support of the local police has more than 3,000 signatures.
Erv Weinkauf, a Forest Lake resident and former police chief in New Ulm, Minn., said citizens “articulated they’re not putting a price tag on public safety.” Support for Forest Lake police comes at a time, he said, “when many other cities are experiencing allegations of police misconduct, civil unrest and violence.”
Another resident, Russ Peterson, told City Council members that “your continuous attempts to micromanage the police department have made us the laughingstock throughout Minnesota.”
Chief Peterson said that Tuesday’s open house will “showcase and display our many strengths, talents and cost-saving measures” in a department that’s been in existence since the early 1930s.
“All of us at the Forest Lake Police Department appreciate the overwhelming support we have received from the community,” he said.