Top law enforcement officials from across the metro area warned that the difficulty of attracting and keeping new police officers is reaching “crisis” proportions, a worrisome trend that one chief likened to the nursing shortage sweeping the country over the past few years.

The cautionary views emerged as the Minnesota Chiefs of Police Association met to discuss strategies to recruit and retain cops amid a flourishing economy and a marked shift in public attitudes toward the profession.

“Quite frankly we are at a point of crisis, in terms of public safety, and men and women joining this very honorable profession,” said Minneapolis Police Chief Medaria Arradondo, comparing it to the nursing industry’s aging workforce, which has seen vacancy rates soar as baby boomers reach retirement and many younger nurses leave the field out of frustration. He said that fewer women were applying to the Police Department than in years past, a trend that was also present in the city’s burgeoning Latino population.

In efforts to step up recruitment, the chiefs association launched a six-month public relations campaign dubbed “Wear the Badge,” touting the community service aspect of police work through a series of videos and advertisements on its website and outlets like School Space Media, which streams high school sporting events. The campaign’s website also contains research and other resources for people interested in going into policing.

It comes at a time when law enforcement agencies large and small are struggling with a shortage of officers nationally. Officials blame the shortage on low pay, high turnover and unflattering news coverage in the wake of high-profile police shootings. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median pay for police officers and detectives nationally is $62,960. In Minnesota, the average yearly salary is $64,700 for police officers and sheriff’s deputies, while detectives and front line supervisors make about $87,970.

Recently released data from the Minnesota Peace Officer Standards and Training Board shows the number of people taking the statewide peace officer licensing exam has fallen to 764 in 2018, which puts it on pace to be the lowest total in at least a decade. Fewer applicants also are passing the test, although the rate of licensure has remained stable, the data show.

In a report released this year, the Bureau of Justice Statistics found that the number of police officers nationally has largely failed to keep up with the growing U.S. population. Researchers found that while the number of sworn officers increased by 52,000 between 1997 and 2016, the rate of officers per 1,000 citizens decreased by 11 percent.

Bloomington Police Chief Jeff Potts couldn’t offer an explanation for the shortage but warned that it’s not warranted by less crime.

“We’ve seen a decline in some of the crime statistics, but I would caution the community in thinking that would reduce the need for police officers,” Potts, who serves as vice president of the Chiefs Association, said at the news conference. Even as crime has fallen, Bloomington police are increasingly responding to calls involving people with mental illness, he said, pointing out that such calls had nearly doubled, from 850 in 2014 to 1,500 so far this year.

Some small town chiefs complained of struggling to fill vacancies of officers who take jobs with bigger departments.

“We hire them, we train them, we put them on the streets, they gain a little experience, and then they move on to larger police departments,” said Hutchinson Police Chief Daniel Hatten, adding that the $25,000 cost of hiring, recruiting and training a new officer, only to lose him or her to another agency, is a serious drain on the 23-member department’s resources. He said that while smaller departments like his want to diversify their ranks, they found themselves competing for the same pool of qualified minority candidates, who may be reluctant to live in the mostly white communities of outstate Minnesota.

Others worried that law enforcement may not appeal to a younger generation.

“The roles are reversed ... to the point where we have to put visions in their head of how they could see themselves in our agency,” said Matt Gottschalk, director of public safety in Corcoran, Minn., a city of roughly 6,000 residents in western Hennepin County. “This is a generation that thrives on creativity and flexibility, and seeing how they thrive in a paramilitary organization is something that we’re facing here.”

Monica Rice, a second-year law enforcement student at Alexandria Technical & Community College, spoke on a panel at the Chiefs Association forum. She said that younger officer candidates learn differently from their older predecessors, favoring more scenario-based training over traditional classroom exercises. They also tend to have greater cultural literacy, allowing them to engage with residents of all backgrounds, she said.

But some things never change, she added, namely the fear of being publicly disgraced for an on-the-job decision.

“One of the biggest things that we’ve kind of been talking about in school right now is authorized use of force,” she said. “A lot of people are worried about if they have to do that, are they going to be in the media.”

In Minneapolis, officials blamed the shrinking candidate pool on decreasing interest in the profession, lower enrollment and graduation rates from area college law enforcement programs, and “internal issues with the application, testing and hiring processes,” according to the city coordinator’s office.

Lt. Bob Kroll, head of the union that represents the city’s rank-and-file officers, said that when he came on the force in the late 1980s, the department regularly had from 500 to 1,000 people taking the entrance exam.

“And now those numbers are down to less than 200,” he said.

St. Paul police launched its Law Enforcement Career Path Academy in 2017 to boost recruitment. The 2 ½-year program is aimed at mentoring candidates from diverse backgrounds who face financial, educational and employment obstacles.

Deputy Chief of Support Services Mary Nash said tackling the problem involves deliberate outreach, one-on-one mentorship and getting to candidates early.

“We have been doing things to get ahead of it for the last year if not more,” Nash said. “I’ve spent 30 years trying to get ahead of it by reaching out. There’s not a student that will e-mail that I don’t respond to. Mentoring and encouraging has been a 30-year career for me.”


Staff writers Chao Xiong and Liz Sawyer contributed to this report.