CLOQUET, MINN. – As he wrapped up his demonstration on handcuffing and moved on to ground fighting, Sgt. Joel Olej­nicak kept a watchful eye on the young students who could soon be his colleagues at the Duluth Police Department.

"These guys are going to be in high demand," said Olejnicak, gesturing to the group of 20-somethings in his defensive-tactics class at Fond du Lac Tribal and Community College.

Duluth Police Chief Mike Tusken expects to replace more than one-fifth of his 158 officers in the next three years due to retirements alone, a prospect that already has him worried about the department's future staffing.

"We are about to lose hundreds of years of experience," Tusken said. "That's scary. But at the same time, it's an opportunity for people to come in with new ideas and perspectives that haven't been institutionalized in the police culture."

Police departments across the country are bracing for a wave of retirements as officers hired during a billion-dollar federal push to bolster agencies in the 1990s reach their 50s and are able to access pensions.

Their replacements may be harder to find these days. Potential officers might be deterred by the higher risk of catching COVID-19 on the job, and the death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police ignited demands to fundamentally change the profession.

"Any time there are negative, very public incidences of use of force involving police officers, it makes it difficult to recruit," said Wade Lamirande, program coordinator for the Fond du Lac college's law enforcement program, which expects to graduate about 30 students in the spring.

In three years, almost one-third of Minnesota's 10,961 active peace officers will be 50 or older, according to the state's Board of Peace Officer Standards and Training (POST). At that point, they are able to tap into retirement benefits, though there is a 5%-per-year pension reduction for those who leave before age 55.

Lamirande, Cloquet's former police chief, said he thinks more officers may be willing to take those cuts given the pandemic and heightened criticism they face these days. For some, sticking around the extra five years may not be worth it.

"This is not an easy job," he said. "I'm hearing that, if they can make the numbers work, more officers are leaving at 51, 52."

Hiring en masse

In 1994, President Bill Clinton signed the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act, which pledged to put 100,000 new police officers on U.S. streets by 2000 in attempt to decrease crime rates that had skyrocketed.

The sweeping measure, the largest crime bill in U.S. history, also included a laundry list of new criminal provisions, as well as funding for prisons and prevention programs.

It has retroactively been accused of contributing to mass incarceration. The law was drafted by then-U.S. Sen. Joe Biden, who has since apologized for parts of the legislation while defending others.

That criticism, though, has not targeted the law's creation of the Community Oriented Police Services (COPS) office, which was authorized to provide $8.8 billion in grants to local police agencies to cover 75% of the cost of new hires.

"It was a chance to change the way we worked," said Scott Lyons, Duluth's police chief for most of the 1990s.

Lyons hired about 30 officers with COPS grants, which allowed him to assign patrols to specific neighborhoods, where they were tasked with building relationships and earning trust. The goal was to decrease 911 calls by presenting these officers as resources for locals in need.

The COPS grants came with stipulations. City leaders had to show how they planned to retain the officers once three years of federal funding ran out.

The COPS office still exists, though with a smaller budget and many different grant programs. Biden's presidential campaign platform pledged to "reinvigorate" the program with a $300 million investment.

But as Lyons described the "huge classes" of men and women that would take his department's entry exam in the '90s, he mused that money might not be today's chiefs' biggest hurdle when it comes to recruiting.

"I know they have a harder time finding as many bodies than they did back in the day," he said. "Our government may have to step in and say: How are we going to incentivize people to want to be cops?"

Competing for candidates

Since preschool, 22-year-old Mona Zeidan has wanted to be a police officer in her hometown. She was raised in Duluth by Lebanese immigrants, and her father owned and operated local restaurants for more than 30 years.

Zeidan said she's drawn to the career by a desire to build relationships and help those in need.

"I think everybody's goal here is to make a difference, to be a part of something bigger," she said, waving to her peers in between drills at the Fond du Lac college gym. Law enforcement classes at the school are about half the size of what they were a decade ago.

Competition to hire this smaller pool of candidates is heating up as more officers reach the sunset of their police careers. A recent Fond du Lac student had a job offer before he passed his POST Board exam.

In Duluth, those applying to be an officer first take a written and oral test, the scores of which are combined to create a ranking of eligible candidates. Individuals at the top of the list who receive an initial interview must pass a background check (conducted by a Duluth investigator), various additional interviews and psychological, physical and medical assessments before they might receive an offer.

New hires go through Duluth's 12-week police academy and at least four months of field training before they are permitted to patrol on their own. They remain on probation for their first year on the force.

It's a rigorous process that takes staffs' time and energy, Tusken admits, but he thinks it's worthwhile work. The Duluth chief often says he would rather leave a position vacant than hire the wrong person.

"We can teach people to a greater or lesser extent to be cops," Tusken said. "But we can't teach character."

Duluth has previously lost officers to departments closer to the Twin Cities, where some agencies offer higher wages and deal with fewer crimes. Recruiting officers of color has at times been a particular challenge for the city of 86,000 that's 90% white.

Tusken involves members of the community in different parts of the interview process to try to garner feedback from a variety of perspectives while making hiring decisions.

Javien Versey, a Black student at the University of Minnesota Duluth who helped organize a protest against police brutality and racial injustice in the fall, said he would like to see more officers that look like him. Whenever he has encountered police around town, they didn't strike up a casual conversation.

"It always feels like they're trying to discover something," he said. "It's more like they're establishing their authority over the community than a relationship with the community."

Of Duluth's existing officers, 8% are minorities and 13% are women. Duluth still has community police officers with designated zones today, though the system has adapted over time. More nonemergency responses are handled by the department's community-service officers, a cohort of nonlicensed staff that might be considering a career in law enforcement.

Tusken will look to that group as he prepares to replace his retiring colleagues, but he's also gearing up to triple his recruiting efforts across Minnesota and the country.

"What I'm hopeful for — and excited about — is hiring those good people who still have a passion to do this, even though it's going to be a tough job," he said. "Those are the people who will forge change in the future."

Katie Galioto • 612-673-4478