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Willmar Police Officer Dustin Van Der Hagen checks out his computer in his squad car at the Law Enforcement Center garage. Tribune photo by Ron Adams

Police chief: It will take six months; crime prevention will be studied

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WILLMAR -- It will take approximately six months, including two months to complete the hiring process and four months of training, before the two new police officers whose hiring was approved this week by the Willmar City Council are ready to protect and serve the community.

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The hiring process includes advertising for applications, taking in the applications, written testing, interviews, background checks, psychological and physical testing, plus review and approval by the city's police commission, according to Police Chief David Wyffels.

At the end of the training process, the new officers should be as prepared to respond to citizen calls as the veteran officers on the force, Wyffels said.

"When they (the new officers) are called, they are the only officer who will respond and must be properly prepared," he said.

The council approved the two new hires -- filling the vacancies left when Officer Christian Berg left the department in July 2011 and Officer Bridget Coit leaves at the end of the month -- on a 5-4 vote at Tuesday's council meeting. Mayor Frank Yanish broke a 4-4 tie to reject an amendment to change the motion to hiring one officer and then broke a 4-4 tie to approve the original motion to hire two officers.

The permission to hire, which will bring the city police staffing to 32 sworn officers and 20 patrol officers, relieves a sense of anxiety at the Police Department, Wyffels said.

"We will be able to serve the public better, which is what they want and why we took the job," he said.

The past several years have included retirements, leadership changes and officers leaving for other departments, combined with a city-wide hiring freeze. When former Chief Jim Kulset retired in July 2010, the total officer count dropped to 33. Then, Detective Tim Manuel retired in January 2011 and Officer Berg left in July, pulling the total down to 31 officers.

The reductions left the department's officers working harder and juggling to provide the police services expected by the city's citizens, Wyffels said. The recent officer losses have pushed the department to the point where there aren't enough officers or time to physically do the work and beyond where strategizing and prioritizing were an effective way to manage the situation.

"We finally got to the position where we couldn't maintain the services provided before," he said. "We tried to keep the service up, but we may have done a disservice to the department."

An area where the community will notice changes is the crime prevention officer.

In the six months it takes to get the new officers hired and trained, Officer Marilee Dorn, the longtime crime prevention officer, will work 12-hour patrol shifts.

Dorn's previous duties will be reassigned or eliminated. As crime prevention officer, her duties have ranged from speaking to groups of all ages about everything from babysitting to Internet fraud to giving driver education talks and providing alcohol server training. She has also been involved with the Community-Oriented Policing and Problem Solving neighborhood groups. Approximately 30 percent of the crime prevention officer duties will go to other officers in the interim, Wyffels said. About 70 percent of the duties will be eliminated, at least for the interim.

Dorn will not automatically return to the crime prevention officer job after the two officers are hired, Wyffels said. Rather, there will be an analysis of those duties, including whether or not the public is calling for those services or whether the staffing time is needed more to respond to patrol calls, and then a decision will be made.

The department may create a hybrid position, in which the crime prevention officer will do some portion of what was done previously, but also work patrol shifts, he added.

A benefit to the hiring of two officers is that it provides what Wyffels calls "wiggle" room -- contingency planning to respond to future retirements. Six officers, seven including Wyffels, are over 50 years of age and could retire from the force as they have met the service requirements.

"They can retire at any time. It takes six months to replace them, so I need those (new) officers ahead of time," he said.

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Gretchen Schlosser

Gretchen Schlosser is the public safety reporter, and writes about agriculture occasionally, for the West Central Tribune. She's been with the Tribune since 2006 and has 17 years of experience working in news, media and communications. 

(320) 214-4373
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