A shortage of police officers is crippling recruitment and retention efforts across the state, including the western Minnesota city of Morris, where — after more than 140 years — the Police Department will cease to exist at the end of the year.

The Morris City Council voted last week to disband the department and enter into a contract with the Stevens County Sheriff's Office for law enforcement services. The move follows a turbulent few months during which the Police Department was whittled to just two officers, including the chief.

"It's a sad day. Nobody wants to see that happen," said Blaine Hill, city manager. "People ask, 'How in the world could a town the size of Morris not have a police department?' We live in a different world now."

The city of about 5,200 residents budgets for eight full-time officers and one full-time administrative specialist. In early July, the city employed four active officers; Hill said one officer is leaving for a different law enforcement agency and one is resigning to switch careers.

Morris, like cities across the country, is dealing with a changing attitude about policing, local officials say. The profession is in the midst of a 25-year low of new officers entering the field. At the same time, officers are retiring and resigning at increased levels.

Nationally, law enforcement agencies are only able to fill 93% of available positions, according to the nonprofit Police Executive Research Forum, which surveyed nearly 200 police agencies last year.

Hill said the agreement with the county will streamline law enforcement services by removing duplications at the city and county levels such as software and equipment. Hill said he doesn't expect the city save money from the move but likely won't spend much more than the city currently does on its Police Department. Last year, the city spent about $1.1 million on police services.

Stevens County Administrator Rebecca Young said the County Board will discuss the arrangement at its meeting Tuesday and could vote on approving an interim agreement for the remainder of the year, as well as a long-term agreement beginning Jan. 1.

The Sheriff's Office currently provides services to all of the county except for the city of Morris — but it has already been covering some of the Police Department's shifts and investigative work amid the staffing shortage.

If the new agreement is approved, the seven-member Sheriff's Office would likely hire four additional deputies, as well as a supervisor and investigator. The remaining Police Department employees will be offered jobs with the Sheriff's Office, according to Sheriff Jason Dingman.

"I'll admit we're going to have some work to do to acquire the appropriate numbers of people that we need, but we're prepared for that," Dingman said at the Morris City Council meeting on July 12. "I can guarantee to the citizens of Morris that they're not going to see a blip on the radar as far as coverage."

Hill said city and county staff looked at similar sheriff's office arrangements in Monticello, St. Michael, Luverne and Madison, Minn.

"It's not an uncommon thing," Hill said. "We're not dealing with something that's brand-new from scratch."

The Morris City Council approved the move on a 4-1 vote.

"We as a council need to roll up our sleeves and figure this out for the long-term benefit of law enforcement for the citizens of the Morris community," said Kevin Wohlers, the lone nay voter. "I will not be the one to abolish the Morris Police Department without concerted effort to get to the root cause of this issue."

Brian Solvie, who has been on the council for a decade, said he's seen 17 officers sworn in during his tenure.

"I don't believe I've seen that much turnover at the Sheriff's Department," he said.

But Solvie, as well as Mayor Sheldon Giese, both emphasized the move didn't indicate a lack of confidence in Police Chief Reggie Welle, who has led the department for about three years and will be offered a job with the Sheriff's Office.

"I really believe that there's no one specifically to blame," Solvie said. He attributed the turnover to officers leaving for personal reasons or because of the public's changing perception of police in recent years as departments grapple with the COVID-19 pandemic and policing in a post-George Floyd world.

"We don't have a lot of options," Giese told council members at the July 12 meeting. "This is probably the hardest decision that has come upon me in 21 years of being on the council — 16 of which I've been mayor."

Solvie said the transition shouldn't impact safety or services for residents.

"I think that the public will not know the difference with how they're serviced other than [that] it's going to be a brown uniform instead of a blue uniform," he said.

A few employees of main-street businesses said they hadn't heard much about the council's decision to disband the Police Department. One woman said the change didn't make her feel any less safe — but she hopes the city shares more information when the agreement is finalized.

Giese said Monday he hasn't heard much feedback since the council's decision last week.

"I don't think it's met well with the community, but it is what it is," he said. "This is where we're at."