The Rosemount Police Department recently decided to stop escorting funeral processions from church to cemetery, irking owners of a local funeral home chain and raising questions about how valuable — and necessary — the traditionally free service has become.

Police Chief Mitchell Scott said it opened police to liability if something went wrong, and that the department can’t always spare the two officers needed to guide the motorcade.

But John White, whose family owns White Funeral Homes with five locations in the south metro area, made it clear to city officials that they were unhappy with the change.

“I said, ‘Jeez, you’re a police department,’ ” White said. “The least liable thing you can probably do is escort a funeral procession.”

The task is not done as much as it used to be. Minneapolis and St. Paul police don’t lead processions, and an informal survey of 17 police departments from across the metro area found that only five agencies — Apple Valley, Farmington, Lakeville, Prior Lake and Shakopee — reported providing the service.

Those that don’t include Blaine, Burnsville, Coon Rapids, Edina, Maple Grove, Plymouth, Roseville, South St. Paul, White Bear Lake and Woodbury.

A Champlin police sergeant said his department had never been asked. Anoka police officials said they would only do so if the funeral procession was unusually long.

Coon Rapids used to offer funeral escorts but stopped a decade ago because of liability and time constraints, said police Capt. Jon Urquhart. With a number of funeral homes and cemeteries in town, the police were doing a lot of them. “If we’re leading a procession and we’re involved in a crash, who’s responsible for that?” Urquhart said.

Despite concerns about liability, however, some see value in help provided by police outside their regular duties — from chasing bats out of an attic to providing directions or escorting funerals, said James Densley, an associate professor of criminal justice professor at Metropolitan State University in Brooklyn Park.

“Law enforcement often provide these helpful community services,” Densley said. “I think the question is whether or not they are the right people to be doing it.”

Striking a compromise

At least five businesses in the metro area will guide funeral processions when local police don’t offer the service. One of them, Woodbury-based Twin Cities Motorcycle Escort, does about 2,000 escorts a year, said owner Thad Heimendinger.

“Most of the cities don’t want anything to do with it,” he said, adding that sometimes officers have to peel away mid-procession to respond to a call. “It takes up a lot of a person’s time,” he said.

Heimendinger’s business provides a motorcyclist to guide mourners to the cemetery for a starting price of $220, he said. Every escort receives training and is licensed by the state Department of Public Safety, he said.

In Rosemount, Scott said, the department doesn’t always have enough officers working to spare two, which is what it takes to safely guide a procession — one squad car to lead and another to control signals.

Nevertheless, White’s complaints prompted officials to reconsider. Mayor Bill Droste said that while the city will no longer escort processions, it will station officers to wave the line of cars through at Hwy. 3 and Connemara Trail, a major intersection.

A funeral home must call 24 hours ahead and again 30 minutes beforehand to request the help, which will be provided only if officers aren’t busy, Scott said. “It’s a compromise. We’re not going to lead the procession,” he said.

But White said that won’t help and that he’ll recommend families instead hire a private service to escort processions.

“If they want a funeral procession, we’re going to give it to them, whether they have to pay for the escort or not,” White said. “I would like to see them not pay for it.”

Shaun Nelson, who sits on the Rosemount City Council, said he agreed with Scott’s initial decision to halt the service. The days of escorting people for free are gone, he said, adding that doing so might make sense if the city was reimbursed.

‘People like the closure’

Of the 600 funerals that White’s mortuary facilitates annually, only about 200 are traditional casket funerals with processions.

Many people are cremated now, so driving to the cemetery for immediate burial doesn’t happen as often. Sometimes, funeral attendees eat first and then meet at the cemetery.

Police escorts fill a need, said the Rev. Paul Kammen, pastor at St. Joseph Catholic Church in Rosemount. Without them, he said, drivers in a procession may not be sure whether to go through red lights and may arrive at the cemetery after a graveside service has started. Other motorists may be confused or fail to notice that a procession is passing. For Catholics, processions are still common, Kammen said. “People like to have that closure,” he said, adding that there is a special Catholic graveside rite.

White said that funeral escorts take only 10 or 15 minutes, and that police are already driving around. He said families afterward often mention the escorted procession and ask the funeral home to thank local police for them.

“That’s what a lot of families remember,” White said. “It’s just something I feel the cities can do for their citizens.”