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Crosby police chief makes difference in her corner of the world: Coughlin retires after 30 years in law enforcement

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Crosby Police Chief Kim Coughlin is retiring after 30 years. Coughlin talks about her career in law enforcement this week. Steve Kohls / Brainerd Dispatch

CROSBY -- Police work is in Kim Coughlin’s blood.

From doing ride-alongs with her father Stan Johnson in Crow Wing County when she was young to dedicating 30 years to the profession -- including serving as Crosby’s police chief for half of her law enforcement career -- Coughlin is now handing in her badge and gun.

Coughlin’s last day with the city is Friday, Sept. 13.

“There were a lot of peaks and valleys over the years,” Coughlin said of her career, but never once has she regretted her decision to go into law enforcement. “It’s such a great job. If you want a lot of money this is not the job you want. It’s not about the money. It’s about you initially thinking you will cure the world of all evil, and then you come to the realization that you can make a difference in your little corner of the world. … And after 30 years knowing that you have made a difference in people’s lives, it’s great.”

Coughlin said police work is not just about chasing down criminals and arresting them. Many times, it’s about sitting down with people and letting them talk about their situation. Officers won’t always be able to help people with their problems, but they can give them the tools to move forward with them solving their own problems, which could be an alcohol or drug addiction.

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“We treat everyone like human beings,” Coughlin said. “It doesn’t matter what their social or economic level is, it doesn’t matter what the color of their skin is. We are here to guide people and when we see people, we see them at their worst. We don’t get invited to birthday parties, I always like to tell people that.”

Coughlin sat down with the Dispatch Wednesday at the police station situated in Crosby City Hall overlooking Serpent Lake to discuss her career in law enforcement, starting at the beginning.

Coughlin’s background

Coughlin, 55, is the daughter of Stan and Nancy Johnson and she grew up in Deerwood. She graduated from Crosby-Ironton High School in 1982. She then earned a bachelor’s degree -- not in law enforcement -- from the University of Minnesota. She interned at the Minneapolis Police Department from 1988-89, and when the cadet program opened up in the department, Coughlin jumped at the opportunity. Anyone with a four-year degree could test to get into the cadet program.

“I was interested in law enforcement in high school, but I was not exactly confident a 5-foot, 2-inch female could do police work in the early ‘80s,” she said. “When I interned in Minneapolis, I fell in love with police work. I initially thought about being a paramedic.”

Coughlin went through the cadet program and was sworn in as an officer in 1989 in Minneapolis. Between 1989-97, she worked as a street officer for many years and worked in the vice unit, homicide and the training unit, where she trained 33 cadets over 30 weeks. Coughlin was promoted to sergeant in 1997, and she also worked with the street patrol division and units focused on internal affairs, property crimes and community crime prevention.

Coughlin earned her master’s in public administration degree in 1997 through Minnesota State University, Mankato.

Coughlin said while in a large city, she learned about all the divisions law enforcement offers. She loved the variety, and investigations and street work were what she enjoyed best.

“I don’t think anyone appreciates the street work as much until you are out of it,” Coughlin said. “But that is the core of a police department. It’s so fun and there is a variety of stuff to do. Every day is not duplicated.”

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Coughlin never aspired to be a police chief and learned about the Crosby police chief position opening by accident. When the job opened, Coughlin and her husband, who then had two of their three children, decided they needed to slow their lives down. The family already traveled to the Crosby area often visiting relatives.

Coughlin applied and got the job. She started in January of 2004, taking former Chief John Drennan’s place.

“Moving here and taking this job was the best decision we ever made,” Coughlin said. “My kids have thrived here and we are a half-mile from the state trail.”

Being chief

“After 30 years of law enforcement, you develop a good theme to your police work of what works and what doesn’t,” Coughlin said. “You also learn by trial and error. You make mistakes and you learn from them. I have made my share of mistakes. ... My first five years on as a police officer, the FTOs (full-time officers) taught me a lot.

“Overall, I think the decisions I have made as chief are just and sound and I can sleep at night.”

Coughlin has had to make some tough decisions -- and ones not everyone has been happy with. Coughlin was under scrutiny by the public for some of the decisions she’s made on cases involving former Crosby Mayor James Hunter and former Crosby police officer Jesse Smith.

Smith was fired from his job twice in a four-year period, but was reinstated both times through arbitration before voluntarily resigning from the Crosby Police Department in 2017. Earlier this year, Smith filed a civil lawsuit against the city and the police department's top two ranking officers, including Coughlin and Lt. Kevin Randolph, who resigned earlier this year.

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Hunter was arrested and then charged in March 2017 with four felonies of second-degree assault, theft by swindle, receiving stolen property and unlawful gambling, and a gross misdemeanor for selling vehicle financing without a license. He then was charged in August 2017 for falsely reporting a crime in a separate but related case.

All the criminal charges have since been either dismissed or Hunter was acquitted by a jury. The case came to a close in April. The two-year legal battle was described by Hunter’s attorney as emotionally and financially taxing for his client, and he said the Crosby Police Department shouldn’t have investigated its own mayor. Hunter’s attorney argued the case was politically motivated and the county attorney’s office argued there was no information to support there being some kind of political persecution through prosecution occurring in the case.

“One of the bigger challenges has been people second guessing the decision you’ve made on something and they don’t have all the facts,” Coughlin said. “It’s based on what they hear on the street or rumors they’ve heard. They feel you didn’t make the right decision. I go back to checking all my checkpoints -- is it true, is it right, is it just and correct and do I have a choice. And in a lot of instances I didn’t have a choice. I had to do it. I had to take action, because to not take action, I would have been negligent.”

Coughlin said when making some tough decisions she utilizes her resources and turns to colleagues who are ethical, have integrity and are highly qualified, for good advice. She said police work is not always black and white.

“I’ve learned everything you read in print is not always true,” Coughlin said. “Despite that, I’ve had so many people come up to me and say that is not true and they support me. They have been the silent majority, but that means so much to me, having them quietly support me.”

Coughlin said her biggest accomplishment as chief was serving the residents of Crosby with honor and integrity. She said she always treated people well who came into the police department looking for help and treated them like they matter. Coughlin said her officers also treat people with respect and integrity, and she is proud of the department.

Coughlin said in law enforcement, officers just don’t only “put away the bad guys,” they also have success stories. She recalled going to church one day and a man singing in the Minnesota Adult and Teen Challenge choir came up to her afterward and said, “Do you know who I am?” Coughlin said it was a man she busted for using drugs and alcohol, but now he was clean. She said it is rewarding to be able to help someone get the help they need. Many times addicts tell officers they are happy they were arrested because it helped them in their journey to recovery.

Crosby police have investigated many cases including more serious crimes, such as a homicide. In January 2018, a 38-year-old man stabbed his sister to death at her Crosby workplace. Earlier this year, he was found not guilty by reason of mental illness and institutionalized.

Coughlin said this homicide was the city’s first in about 20 years.

Deaths are always tough. Coughlin said working in law enforcement in a small town, officers and herself know most everyone -- so responding to suicides is hard. Coughlin said nine out of 10 times, officers knew the person who died from previous police calls, high school or know them or their family by living in town and attending events.

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Retiring Crosby Police Chief Kim Coughlin talks about her career Wednesday, Sept. 11, at the Crosby City Hall. Steve Kohls / Brainerd Dispatch

Women as police chiefs

Coughlin was one of 16 female police chiefs in Minnesota, according to the Minnesota Police Chief Association. With Coughlin’s retirement, there are now 15. Out of those 15 chiefs, the greater Brainerd lakes area has three -- Staples Police Chief Melissa Birkholtz, Wadena Police Chief Naomi J. Plautz and Mille Lacs Tribal Police Chief Sara Rice. Coughlin said one of her cadets, Melissa Chiodo was named police chief a few months ago in Inver Grove Heights.

According to the Minnesota Board of Peace Officer Standards and Training based in St. Paul, in 2019, there are 1,271 female peace officers compared to 9,565 male peace officers.

“Women bring a different perspective. I’m not saying necessarily better, just different,” Coughlin said. “Female officers at a scene, a lot of the times ... will handle the situation differently than a male would, not necessarily worse or better, just different. The whole ‘Women are from Mars and Men are from Venus’ book is not necessarily false. We approach things differently. We are all trained the same tactically and we all have the same stuff on our belts.

“Sometimes women can calm a situation down more and sometimes they don’t, it depends. We are at a physical disadvantage, but what some women do to offset that is they use their words to calm them down.”

Even so, Coughlin said her old partner in Minneapolis was a man and he was skilled in calming a situation down. She said her partner often times would sit down and talk with the victim in a sexual assault incident and she’d go after the suspect.

When discussing gender differences as officers, Coughlin went on to say, “One of the key things is, I don’t care how big or small you are, but when you knock on the door there is always someone bigger than you. There is no shame in asking for reinforcements.”

Retirement

“It’s bittersweet,” Coughlin said of her retirement. “I love my job. It’s the most important job in the world. It’s difficult, it’s not easy, but it’s fulfilling, fun and exciting at times.”

Coughlin said she will begin her next journey of life and will be able to spend more quality time with her husband and their three children, ages 18, 16 and 13. Her oldest graduated from C-I this past spring. The family enjoys mountain biking, snowmobiling, hockey, hunting, running, fishing and camping.

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Kim Coughlin (second from right) poses with her family while on vacation. Submitted photo

Coughlin said it will be nice to attend her children’s sporting events and other activities without having to take any police calls. And now she will be able to clean her house all at once instead of in increments, as life as a police chief is busy.

“As a police chief you are never really off duty,” Coughlin said. “In an administration position, you can never relax. You need to know what policies need to be updated and know what is happening in the city and you need to keep track of all the police trainings.”

Coughlin also will spend more time with her 80-year-old mother, as they enjoy grouse hunting and biking together. Coughlin said her father died at a young age of 63 -- so he never got to see her become the Crosby police chief or meet her husband or children.

“I would have loved for him to see me here as police chief,” Coughlin said. “He would have been thrilled with my accomplishment.”

Her husband works for C-I Transportation in Crosby and is also a Chief/Wings Weapon Manager for the Minnesota Air National Guard-148th out of Duluth.

“He has been deployed to several areas several times,” Coughlin said. “I am very proud of him.”

Advice to law enforcement graduates

“One of the biggest things is understanding that even the smallest difference you make is a difference,” Coughlin said. “Maybe in your lifetime you won’t -- in your career -- catch that murderer, but you will put many thieves and burglars and pedophiles away behind bars and those are just as important as the big cases.

“And I go back to treating everyone with respect and dignity. I’m proud of what I did. Know (your police work) goes by fast. Every single day, go into it with a humble heart and don’t let your guard down at any level and don’t be afraid to ask for help.”

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