Amid a nationwide shortage of police officers that is especially acute in Minnesota's Twin Cities, state leaders are preparing an unprecedented package of incentives to shore up the ranks of law enforcement.
That need also presents a historic opportunity to remake a profession that finds itself at a nadir for community trust, an essential ingredient in effective law enforcement. Retirements are up 45% nationwide. Minnesota lost 32 police chiefs in 2021 alone and another dozen the year before that.
St. Paul Police Chief Todd Axtell announced his retirement late last year, followed quickly by Minneapolis Police Chief Medaria Arradondo. The Minneapolis Police Department is down literally hundreds of positions, affecting everything from investigations to beat patrols, and is also the subject of a U.S. Justice Department investigation.
It is not overstatement to call this a crisis. That makes this a good time for the state to step forward with resources and a well-thought-out template that can make for safer, more effective law enforcement in communities across the state, drawing on recommendations from policy experts, communities and law enforcement itself.
At the heart of a $16 million recruitment and retention proposal offered by Minnesota House Majority Leader Ryan Winkler and others is a requirement that new hires be of "good moral character." That is current requirement in a number of jurisdictions across the country, from Florida to Los Angeles — as well as some agencies locally — but is not a standard requirement in Minnesota law enforcement. It should be.
Departments such as those in St. Cloud and Duluth that have prioritized such hires have achieved good results. "We recruit people who have the temperament we want," St. Cloud Police Chief William Blair Anderson told an editorial writer. "If they have volunteered, that's big for me. I want people who do things for others who can do nothing for them. I've learned in my almost 27 years you can't teach people character, compassion. You can teach them how to be effective operationally, but they have to come to you at least with that and it has to be part of the department's culture. My force embodies that."
In a May 2021 commentary in the Duluth News Tribune, that city's police chief, Mike Tusken, wrote that "we do character-based hiring, and we set a high bar for expectations and hold staff accountable for being dedicated ambassadors of the city of Duluth, the Duluth Police Department, and the profession of policing. … We understand there are people who are in this profession who tarnish the badge. … The imposters among our ranks need to be culled out because their actions betray public trust and make building relationships critical to community safety much more challenging."
"It all starts with the community," said Matt Bostrum, a retired Ramsey County sheriff who now leads the Center for Values-Based Initiatives and has written for the U.S. Justice Department on character-based police officer selection. When talking to communities and police themselves, some common themes emerge, Bostrum told an editorial writer. "What makes a good police officer? Honesty, integrity, a service mind-set, respect. But the number one quality for all concerned is high character."
There are any number of good ideas at the State Capitol that can aid in that. A $65 million package proposed by Senate Republicans includes an expansion of the award-winning "Pathways to Policing" program that helps nontraditional candidates switch careers to join law enforcement. It would offer grants, tuition reimbursements and signing bonuses and would build in money for a recruiting program and advertising campaign.
These incentives are all important if Minnesota is to draw a different type of recruit, one with a service rather than "warrior" mind-set. Winkler noted that one southwest suburban police chief told him his No. 1 target for recruitment was teachers, because of the qualities it takes to be in a classroom.
Bostrum noted that "I tell communities I work with, 'You all know people in your community who are honest, service-minded, respectful. If we don't have community members searching those individuals out and saying 'We'd be proud of you if you serve,' where do you think we're going to find these people? We all need to help in this."
Law enforcement is a profession badly in need of a reset. The vast majority of law enforcement officers do a good job and are in it for the right reasons. Their task, as Duluth's Tusken noted, is made infinitely more difficult by those who betray public trust and have shown they have no business in law enforcement.
Communities and agencies must work together to attract and retain the right kinds of recruits and officers. St. Cloud's Anderson has said he won't relax his standards, even with a scarcity of recruits. Bostrum said that is the right path. "What I've learned is that it's better to run 10 short than to hire unacceptable candidates. If you do, you just added 10 rocks to your shoe that you're going to carry for the next 20 years."