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Minnesota Opinion: The need for more police on Minnesota streets transcends politics

From the editorial: "Republicans and DFLers in St. Paul agree it needs to be addressed immediately. ... And they rarely seem to agree on anything."

A critical cartoon about the "Defund the Police" movement.
Cartoon for Feb. 28, 2022
<a href="https://caglecartoons.com/cartoonist/rick_mckee/">Rick McKee</a>
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Minnesota needs more police on the streets, a shortage so dire Republicans and DFLers in St. Paul agree it needs to be addressed immediately. This legislative session. And they rarely seem to agree on anything.

But both parties have introduced bills this winter aimed at bolstering the recruitment and retention of law-enforcement officers, with record numbers of police retiring or quitting due to low pay and even lower public support and respect. Making matters worse, record-low numbers of student recruits are enrolling to train to become police officers.

"People across Minnesota are feeling less safe in recent months, and part of that is because our state is short nearly 800 officers," Sen. Jason Rarick, R-Pine City, said this month. "Men and women are just feeling driven away from the profession as a result of the negativity and (the) demonization policing saw over the last year."

Nationally, since 2020, officer resignations have increased 18% and retirements have jumped 45%, according to survey results released in June by the nonprofit Police Executive Research Forum.

In Minnesota, just last year, 32 police chiefs retired, according to Senate Republicans. Law enforcement agencies in the state have 10% to 15% vacancy rates, with about 58 agencies seeking new officers, according to the Department of Public Safety. Around one-quarter of agencies statewide are trying to fill between 1,200 and 1,500 positions. Another 5% to 10% of peace officers in Minnesota are at retirement age, which threatens to exacerbate this current challenge.

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Additionally, on average, Minnesota schools turn out 536 officers a year. At that rate, it’ll take three years to fill current vacancies, as a story in the Duluth News Tribune pointed out this week. The Fond du Lac Tribal and Community College's cadet numbers in Cloquet are down by roughly half, while Hibbing Community College only has 12 first-year students this year compared to its usual 30 to 35, as the Duluth News Tribune reported in January.

In response, earlier this month, Senate Republicans unveiled six bills they collectively referred to as a COPS Program, or a "Creating Opportunities in Public Safety" Program. They propose spending $65 million to attract "nontraditional candidates" to law enforcement, to give scholarships and financial aid to students who want to be cops, to offer up to $5,000 in tuition reimbursements for recently licensed peace officers and those working toward becoming officers, to award $10,000 bonuses to newly hired peace officers, and to market law enforcement as a "rewarding and honorable" career.

This week, DFLers in the House responded with a proposal of their own to help attract and retain community-oriented law officers of “good moral character” and those who are underrepresented in the profession, as Forum News Service reported. The lawmakers said the bill was developed with the input of the state police chiefs and sheriffs associations.

Specifically, it calls for $13 million to establish an expedited peace officer training program, $2.6 million for scholarships, and $800,000 for outreach. Programs would be run through the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities system. Benefits would include free tuition, living expenses, signing bonuses, and a retention bonus after 18 months. Officers who complete the program would be required to work full-time in Minnesota for six years.

Recruiting officers of good character has long been a goal in Duluth, helping our department avoid the tragedies elsewhere that have marred the reputations of law enforcement, a notable example the murder by police in Minneapolis of George Floyd.

“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,” Duluth Police Chief Mike Tusken wrote in a commentary in the Duluth News Tribune in May. “We are not just any police department. We are different and, we believe, better. We understand there are people who are in this profession who tarnish the badge and who are not representative of the best of us in policing. We share our community's desire that those who are not honorably serving our citizens are not welcome in this noble profession. 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.”

With similar, shared goals, Republicans and DFLers in St. Paul can find enough common ground this session to effectively improve the recruiting and retaining of well-trained, high-character police officers. Nothing short of the security of Minnesotans and our public safety — both bolstered by having enough cops on the streets — depend on the success of their legislation.

This Minnesota Opinion editorial is the opinion of the editorial board of the Duluth News Tribune.

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