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The officers sport the same uniforms, badges and police cars. They can make arrests and carry a gun. But these 175 part-time peace officers — scattered in departments across the state — carry a lesser license than your average cop.
No two-year degree required.
Minnesota lawmakers want to end that license, calling it a vestige of another time. The Senate passed a bill Wednesday, a week after the House, that would stop the state from issuing new part-time peace officer licenses this summer. They argue that putting officers on the streets with just 40 hours of training and a test is too risky.
"You've got a person on the street that is authorized to take a life," said Rep. Tony Cornish, R-Vernon Center, a former police chief and the bill's author. "And we've seen so much controversy about that. With that great responsibility, you should have the two years of college and training."
But some outstate cities that rely on a few part-time officers to fill key shifts and patrol city festivals oppose the bill, saying it would rob them of their flexibility and hike their overtime costs. Mankato's director of public safety, Todd Miller, said the department's eight part-timers, who work under supervision, have gone through extensive training alongside their full-time counterparts.
"We use them in specific ways," Miller said. "They are to assist and be an additional resource to the full-time officers," freeing them for other work.
If the proposal nabs Gov. Dayton's signature, current part-time officers would be able to continue working "indefinitely" but could not switch to another agency. Cops with full-time licenses could continue to work part-time shifts, as many do now.
No part-time officers will lose their jobs because of this bill, Sen. Ron Latz, DFL-St. Louis Park, assured lawmakers before its swift, 54-11 passage in the Senate. "Once they leave their positions, then that qualification will disappear and eventually, as they retire, there will be no more part-time licensees in Minnesota."
Law enforcement is split on the bill. The Minnesota Sheriffs' Association supports it. So does the Minnesota Police and Peace Officers Association. But police chiefs are divided, said Andy Skoogman, executive director of the Minnesota Chiefs of Police Association, which has remained neutral.
The League of Minnesota Cities opposes the proposal, warning lawmakers that ending part-time licensure could have a "drastic" effect on departments that have trouble recruiting and depend on part-time officers to staff events and fill in for officers on vacation or medical leave. Some agencies pay their part-timers a lower wage. Mankato's part-time officers are volunteers, with no pay or benefits, who get a stipend for training.
"It provides flexibility in rounding out a budget," said Anne Finn, a lobbyist for the League.
This move is the next step in Minnesota's long effort to professionalize peace officers, said Neil Melton, executive director of the Minnesota Board of Peace Officer Standards and Training, or POST Board. The state was the first to require officers to have a two-year degree.
Part-time licensure "sort of flies in the face of what we've been doing for 37 years," he said. "It's time."
In the late 1990s, the Legislature capped the number of part-time officers an agency could employ. The statewide count of part-time officers then quickly fell from 1,400 but, in recent years, got stuck at about 200, Melton said.
Most agencies now employ a small fraction of the part-time officers they're allowed under state law, the POST board's data show. Dozens of departments employ just one. Many have none.
Part-time officers have presented no problems, Melton acknowledged. In at least 15 years, there's been just one sanction against a part-time officer — an off-duty DWI.
That track record proves that "this law they're proposing is really a law in search of a problem," said Miller, the Mankato director.
Some of Mankato's part-time officers have extensive educations in other fields and years of training with the department, Miller said. They're a key part of a community policing strategy, fueled by volunteers and others, that multiplies the city's public safety force, he said.
Freeing up full-time cops
Almost a decade ago, Carol Whitney took part in Mankato's "police academy" — meant to give citizens a sense of what officers do. "It stirred my interest," Whitney said this week.
She spent a year as a volunteer reserve officer before deciding to become a part-time officer. After working days as a salesperson at an auto dealership, Whitney took classes three nights a week, putting in about 200 hours before taking the test for part-time officers — plus psychiatric and physical exams. She passed.
Now Whitney, 58, works several days a month, managing traffic at races, overseeing prescription drug drop-offs and blocking the perimeter at a crime scene or fire. She's also paged "if something major goes down."
Being licensed makes her more useful, she said. "We're able to write a ticket, able to arrest, able to transport someone." Bringing a resident to the detox center "frees up our full-time officers to go back on the road," she said.
Recently, Whitney was working an event at the Civic Center when a fight broke out. She called for backup and, along with two full-time officers, made the arrests.
Despite some cities' concerns, Cornish believes that departments will adjust. "The claims that this is going to cripple them is bogus," Cornish said. Many police departments have already made the switch to officers with full-time licenses, partly because they require less supervision and paperwork.
In little Gaylord, Minn., officers with part-time licenses were once key to staffing the police force, said Chief Tony Padilla. Now it employs just one. "Back in the day, there wasn't a big pool out there," he said. "It was a phenomenal way to get people within the community to serve in the community."
The city recently posted a part-time job. But it requires a full-time license. A week in, they've already received 10 applications.
"Times have changed," Padilla said. "There's just so many people looking for jobs right now that have full-time licenses."