Minnesota DFLers say a proposed new program to recruit and retain police officers "with strong moral character" would help address a statewide staffing shortage and build law enforcement agencies that look more like the communities they serve.

The program, outlined in legislation that a group of House and Senate Democrats unveiled Monday, would provide free tuition, job placement assistance, signing and retention bonuses and other incentives to "highly qualified" high school and college graduates who pursue law enforcement training through the Minnesota State system.

"We have put together a bill that is built on the premise that Minnesota can recruit, can hire, can train and can retain the kinds of police officers who reflect our communities' values," said House Majority Leader Rep. Ryan Winkler, DFL-Golden Valley.

Winkler, the bill's chief author, described the proposal as "the product of a long set of conversations I have had with police chiefs and sheriffs."

It's the latest in a stack of public safety proposals on the table this session, as both chambers in the divided Legislature and DFL Gov. Tim Walz grapple with a rise in violent crime amid the ongoing reckoning over the future of policing.

All sides want to bolster law enforcement ranks, though their approaches differ. Walz has proposed directing $300 million over three years to local governments and tribes to address public safety needs, including recruitment and retention. Last week, the GOP-controlled Senate passed a proposal to spend $1 million on a marketing campaign promoting police work as a profession — one piece of a $65 million law enforcement recruitment and retention package.

The House DFL proposal — one in a slate of public safety measures Democrats have introduced this session — includes $13 million to establish an expedited law enforcement training program for college graduates.

It also includes $2.6 million for scholarships for high school graduates pursuing four-year law enforcement degrees and $800,000 to recruit candidates for the program, particularly from communities of color and other groups underrepresented in law enforcement.

"Now is an opportunity here for people to put their money where their mouth is," said Booker Hodges, an assistant commissioner in the Minnesota Department of Public Safety and incoming Bloomington police chief.

"I can't overstress enough: This bill, if passed, is a generational opportunity here for the state of Minnesota."

About a quarter of Minnesota law enforcement agencies are looking to hire personnel, Hodges said. There are currently from 1,200 to 1,500 officer job vacancies, he said, far more than the 536 new officers the state turns out in an average year.

And of officers working today — nearly 11,000, according to Walz's budget proposal — fewer than 450 are people of color, Hodges said.

The educational costs of pursuing a law enforcement career can be a barrier for candidates from marginalized communities, said Rep. Kaohly Vang Her, DFL-St. Paul.

"Minnesota has one of the highest standards for educational attainment for its officers — that is a good standard," she said. "But it is unachievable when you are a first-gen to go to college; when you are a new American who has not had the time to build up your savings to go to college; when you are just someone who cannot take on the debt that it takes to acquire a four-year degree."

The bill describes highly qualified participants as having "a strong moral character and a proven commitment to community and public service." Winkler noted the character-based employment practices developed by former Ramsey County Sheriff Matt Bostrom, which hired people based on whether they were found to be trustworthy, truthful, responsible and respectful.

"Character can be defined not only as, obviously, integrity in terms of telling the truth and acting according to a code of ethics, but also having a level of cultural competency, having a service mind-set," Winkler said.

The bill's proposed program doesn't aim to change how individual agencies hire, Winkler said. Rather, it would channel qualified candidates — an estimated 250 a year — toward law enforcement jobs.

That will take time.

"The stark reality is, in many of our communities, we are going to have to figure out how to create community public safety with the number of officers we have right now," Winkler said.

"What we're trying to do is get the pipeline going in a different way with this bill, but it won't solve our problems right now. It will only start moving us in the right direction."