Suburban police departments are welcoming more new officers and leaders this summer after a pension change sparked a wave of retirements.
Across Minnesota, the pension change that took effect this spring has spurred more retirements, with nearly one in five agency heads surveyed statewide saying that the changes will cause major turmoil for their department.
“We’re all feeling it,” said Maple Grove Police Chief Eric Werner, a former Rosemount chief who was appointed to the top spot, replacing a retiring chief, one of four retirees. “These are challenges when you’re trying to provides services to the community.”
Out of about 10,500 peace officers in the state, an estimated 10 percent were eligible to retire before the pension law changes. The change became law last year after it was contained in an omnibus pension bill meant to strengthen the police and fire plan of the Public Employees Retirement Association of Minnesota (PERA). The pension change means officers who wanted to retire before they turn 55 would see smaller pension payments if they waited until after May 31.
In a recent survey by the Minnesota Chiefs of Police Association, almost 18 percent of the police chiefs who answered said that retirements due to the PERA changes are having a major immediate impact on their departments. About 19 percent said the impact was big but not as immediate. And about 36 percent answered that it had some impact, while the rest said it didn’t really apply to them.
The association’s spokesman, Andy Skoogman, said the organization is taking extra measures to help departments, offering peer support and scholarships for police chiefs and patrol officers to attend training; the demand is high for the leadership training as more officers move up the ranks during the turnover, with one class in September sold out, Skoogman said.
In Minneapolis, where the number of sworn officers was already hovering near a 10-year low, the retirements have led to staffing problems in some precincts.
Suburban departments are much smaller, but they too are feeling the impact after losing police chiefs and veteran officers with hundreds of years in combined experience:
In Maple Grove, the police department lost a combined 120 years of experience with three officers retiring along with Police Chief David Jess, who retired May 30 and was replaced by Werner.
With a staff of about 66 officers, Werner said the loss of four experienced leaders in the police department is significant.
Along with officers who have gone to other departments, he said staffing is down about 10 percent.
“We’re all feeling the effects of it,” he said.
It’s meant longer hours and overtime for current officers who have had to take on more responsibilities while Werner searches to hire three officers. He said he hopes to make the new hires by the end of next month, but even then, the new officers will have nearly four months of training.
“When everybody is looking for candidates, it’s difficult,” he said of the hiring spree statewide for officers.
In Minnetonka, the police department has had a similar number of retirements this year as past years — three retirements — but it included chief Mark Raquet, the city promoting police captain Jeff Sebenaler to the top spot. In Eden Prairie, the police department had three retirements between January and June 1 — two of which were end of May retirements. And in Plymouth, two officers retired this year, up from one last year.
Elsewhere, the retirement wave was less significant. In Bloomington, the police department had two retirements, down this year from eight retirements last year.
Likewise, cities like Coon Rapids didn’t have any retirements due to the new pension changes. In Blaine, the 59-officer department had five retirements, three of them before the May deadline.
And in Brooklyn Park, the department had eight retirements — more than any recent year.
Even for a 100+ staff, the large influx in retirees means reorganizing so that priority positions such as street patrol are filled, Inspector Mark Bruley said.
“It’s certainly significant — no question about it,” he said. “Like any business model, we’re trying to minimize the impact.”
The department, like others, is in the midst of hiring new officers but that, too, may take the rest of the year for the new staff to be hired and trained.
Even though it means losing veteran officers, Bruley said police departments are weathering the pension change.
“It’s accepted as outside our control,” he said. “We’ve just had to adjust to it.”
Police departments south of the river in Dakota County haven’t been affected to the same extent as some others.
Dakota County Sheriff Dave Bellows said his department offered an early-out retirement program a couple of years ago and lost “upwards of seven” people through that.
What the sheriff said he has seen, thanks to retirements at other agencies, is “a very competitive market [when] trying to fill new positions.”
Bellows said he’s in the process of hiring four to five people right now and, while there is a large number of police candidates, competition for the top-tier, experienced candidates is fierce.
Eagan Police Chief Jim McDonald said two people in his department retired in May to avoid the PERA changes. But they would have retired regardless. The only difference was they chose to go in May rather than wait until July.
Many of the Eagan officers were hired in the 1980s when the suburb’s growth was at its highest. Those officers will be coming up to retirement soon, McDonald said, and will result in “a steady steam of people headed out the door.”
But the chief doesn’t anticipate having any difficulty managing those retirements.
Jeff Long, police chief in Lakeville, said he knows of one captain that retired before the rules change took effect. But, he said, Lakeville is unlike Edina, where he formerly was chief, which lost five or six. Like Eagan, Long said he expects a large number of retirements in about 10 years.
The West St. Paul Police Department hasn’t lost anyone to the changes. Spokesman Lt. Brian Sturgeon said it’s largely a younger department. He estimated the average age to be about 35.
Burnsville, too, has seen “minimal impact, if any at all,” Police Chief Eric Gieseke said.
Staff writers Matt McKinney and Pat Pheifer contributed to this report.