Rookie officers in Oil Patch get ‘thrown into the mix’
WILLISTON, N.D. — Cops in the Oil Patch say one year of experience there is what they’d see in five years elsewhere.
As North Dakota’s oil boom brings a spike in police calls to growing communities, many of the officers on the front lines are rookies in their early to mid-20s.
“They’ve been thrown in the fire with gas on top of them,” said Williston police Detective Cory Collings.
A majority of the new hires come from Minnesota, where tight budgets make law enforcement jobs harder to get.
The level of activity enticed Stacey Eissinger, 25, of Lakeville, to apply with the Williston Police Department. She’s been training in a squad car with eight bullet holes and will begin working on her own later this week.
“It is so busy here and so many intense things happen,” said Eissinger, a graduate of the Alexandria law enforcement program. “I probably couldn’t get this experience somewhere else.”
In the neighboring community of Watford City, the police department’s oldest members are 28.
Sgt. Shannon Monnens, 28, a former Duluth dispatcher, worked as a police officer in quiet Babbitt, for six months before she moved to Watford City.
Now loaded weapons, drug busts and vehicle pursuits are routine.
“As a rookie, usually you want all the action,” Monnens said.
Levi Cabler, 25, of Carrington, was among the officers who responded to a standoff in Williston in April that involved a suspect who fired at police multiple times. No officers were hurt, but authorities returned fire and worked to clear the neighborhood before the suspect was wounded and surrendered.
Cabler, a graduate of Lake Region State College in Devils Lake, began working his first law enforcement job with the Williams County Sheriff’s Office five years ago and now is a detective.
“You kind of get thrown into the mix,” Cabler said.
Travis Martinson, 24, of St. Cloud, is a senior patrolman with the Williston police. He’s worked for the department since 2010, which he jokes makes him practically a veteran.
One obstacle Martinson said he has to overcome is getting respect. He said he’s had people ask him if it was bring your kid to work day.
Martinson, who received his training in Brainerd, often compares notes with a friend who works for a rural Minnesota police department.
“What they do in a month is what our police department does in a night,” said Martinson, who has had guns pulled on him. “They don’t see what we see out here.”
Carol Archbold, a North Dakota State University criminal justice associate professor, said Oil Patch law enforcement agencies have younger departments than she has typically seen across the country. Archbold, who has studied police departments since 1996, is researching the impact of North Dakota’s oil boom on law enforcement.
One reason the departments struggle to attract experienced officers is that the lack of housing makes it difficult to recruit officers with families, Archbold said.
While the increase in police calls is a big responsibility for the young officers, particularly those who have advanced to leadership positions, there are also benefits of having young departments, Archbold said.
“It’s probably good that they’re young so they can keep up with all of the calls,” Archbold said.
Mountrail County Sheriff Ken Halvorson said most of his new hires are 21 or slightly older with no experience. He said he sees no advantage to hiring young officers, who have a turnover rate of about 50 percent in his county.
“They’re quitting,” Halvorson said. “They find out it’s not like it is on television.”
Halvorson said he struggles to recruit and retain deputies because his county has not increased salaries or provided housing like agencies in some neighboring counties have.
“We’re begging people to come to work,” Halvorson said.
Watford City now boasts one of the highest police salaries in the state, said Chief Jesse Wellen. Starting pay is nearly $50,000, and the city is building apartments that will be available to law enforcement.
In Williston, where 62 percent of the police force is from Minnesota, retaining the new hires hasn’t been a problem so far, said Assistant Police Chief Tom Ladwig. But he expects that will change as people gain experience and want to move closer to their families.
“We know when things open up we’re going to lose some people,” Ladwig said.
But many Minnesota officers said the pay in western North Dakota and the opportunities for advancement may keep them from leaving.
Wellen, 28, from International Falls, who was promoted to chief this year after less than two years as a cop, has purchased a house in Watford City and expects to be there awhile.
“This early in my career, I’m already the chief of police,” Wellen said. “It’d be hard to start over again.”