For 17 years, Matt Hedrick’s calling was as a Bloomington pastor. Christopher Nelson spent 15 years at his stepfather’s Minnetonka marketing firm. Eventually the pull of law enforcement proved too strong for both.

“Now’s the time to do it or I might miss this window,” Hedrick said he remembered thinking as he approached 40.

Hedrick and Nelson are now in their third year with the Hastings Police Department, where they are both detectives.

Law enforcement leaders would like to make it easier for others like them to change careers and enter the field, citing the life experience they offer and the potential to diversify the state’s force.

“While the challenges of police work are many … for these people that come into it late, it was something in the back of their mind that maybe they didn’t do,” Maplewood Police Chief Paul Schnell said of such “second-career” officers.“Their commitment to the job can sometimes be different as a result.”

Schnell hired Hedrick and Nelson when he was Hastings police chief in 2013. He is also a part-time instructor in Metropolitan State University’s law enforcement and criminal justice program.

Second-career applicants are a priority for the Minnesota Board of Peace Officer Standards and Training as it develops its strategic plan in the next three to five years, said Executive Director Nathan Gove.

Agencies don’t typically track how many officers came from other careers, but POST board figures suggest the number could be significant. Of the 1,052 full-time officers POST licensed in 2013-14, more than 55 percent were 26 or older — including 151 officers ages 35 to 59.

“I find it hard to believe they hadn’t had [another] career since high school,” Gove said.

New group of candidates

Schnell believes chiefs are beginning to look at second-career applicants as a chance to diversify the candidate pool.

“There’s nothing wrong with the types of candidates we have,” Schnell said. “But should we target certain types of skill sets that might bring bigger diversity?”

Minnesota State Patrol spokeswoman Tiffani Schweigart, also a second-career officer, said the agency’s Law Enforcement Training Opportunity Program’s current class includes 11 military veterans, three women and a bilingual candidate. Since the State Patrol began the program in 2009, Schweigart said, 87 new hires have successfully completed it to begin new careers as state troopers.

The program, Schweigart said, “does allow us to be even more selective in our process because it opens opportunity to a new group of potential applicants.”

The State Patrol hires candidates with two- or four-year degrees and pays them a full-time salary while they undergo roughly six months of training, Schweigart said.

But for those seeking careers in police work, like Hedrick and Nelson, many must balance night and weekend classes with family life and their current jobs. With 29 Minnesota colleges offering programs, Gove said officials will be discussing whether the path to getting a license can be more streamlined.

Nelson went through Metropolitan State’s one-year program offered to those with a four-year degree elsewhere. Hedrick, meanwhile, jammed 36 credit hours into his first year at Inver Hills Community College because not all of his credits from a small Bible school and Bethel University would transfer, he said.

‘New life’

Becoming licensed often isn’t the final challenge for second-career cops. Nelson said that though he landed an interview in Hastings, he was concerned about the cost of this new career, especially since his wife was a stay-at-home mom. He hoped to keep working in marketing part time his first year to supplement the entry-level pay of $22.49 to $34.29 an hour, but he said most police job postings suggested secondary work wasn’t allowed.

But after Nelson raised the issue during his interview, Schnell found the request reasonable.

“If we want to get these types of candidates, we’re going to have to be more flexible in terms of finding ways to make this work for people,” Schnell said.

After all, he said, he wanted Nelson and Hedrick working at the department. Why did he seek them out, despite Nelson’s limited experience as a reserve officer in Hopkins and Hedrick’s lack of law enforcement experience?

“The depth of their history and their experience is what stood out,” he said.

Nelson now agrees his background juggling tasks for clients readied him to manage numerous ongoing investigations. Hedrick said the people skills he honed while leading a church now help him get both victims and suspects talking.

Both have found new energy with the career change.

“Literally every day I can’t wait to go to work. Every day is different, every call is different,” Hedrick said. “For me it was kind of, at 40 years old, just breathing new life into me.”