Help wanted in local law enforcement as area agencies struggle to fill officer positions
Crow Wing County Sheriff Scott Goddard said dozens of law enforcement agencies across the state and nation are facing similar challenges in filling positions and he doesn’t expect that to change anytime soon. The sheer number of agencies hiring means applicants have their choice of locales and competition is stiff, including from other local agencies, Goddard noted.
The Crow Wing County Sheriff’s Office is struggling to fill open positions with quality applicants, Sheriff Scott Goddard recently told county commissioners.
“We’re not unique,” Goddard said during the board’s May 11 meeting. “You know, if you look across the entire area, every business you drive by you’ll see a ‘we need help’ sign, and we’re in the same boat.”
The open positions span the various departments within the sheriff’s office, including patrol deputies, 911 dispatchers and corrections officers. Goddard said staffing at the Crow Wing County Jail is currently down by eight positions — manageable at the moment, given one of the housing units is shuttered in response to fewer inmates from the state and amid the pandemic, but not sustainable in the long term.
Still, Goddard said dozens of law enforcement agencies across the state and nation are facing similar challenges in filling positions and he doesn’t expect that to change anytime soon. The sheer number of agencies hiring means applicants have their choice of locales and competition is stiff, including from other local agencies, Goddard noted.
“It’s a battle that we’re all facing and it’s something — I hope it’s short-sighted, but I have a feeling it’s not going to be,” the sheriff said. “We’re going to be facing this challenge for quite a while coming.”
‘Feeling the pain’
A jobs board on the website of the Minnesota Board of Peace Officer Standards and Training, or the POST Board, reflects Goddard’s observations. As of Tuesday, May 18, 35 agencies were advertising for one or more open positions, including the area police departments of Mille Lacs Tribal, Staples and Long Prairie along with the Cass County Sheriff’s Office. Crow Wing County isn’t listed there, but instead has indefinite advertisements for its hiring lists on its website.
Down the street at the Brainerd Police Department, Chief Mike Bestul said the department just closed an application period for open positions and will move to the interviewing process soon. Bestul said a number of recent retirements — including that of his predecessor, former Chief Corky McQuiston — is driving the current hiring push and bringing the average age of the department down significantly. Half of the department is under the age of 30, Bestul said, whereas a decade ago, the average age was 40-45 years old.
"There’s just not enough candidates to fill all these positions in the state of Minnesota. I think everybody’s feeling the pain."
— Mike Bestul, Brainerd police chief
It isn’t only recent retirements prompting the recent hirings. Bestul noted the department’s been in more or less a constant state of hiring for the last decade, and never fully staffed in that time. As recently as six years ago, it wouldn’t be uncommon for 100 or more applications for a single position, Bestul said, but now it’s more likely job openings garner 20-35 applicants. This is even as testing practices became more flexible to accommodate applicants’ schedules, he added.
“Back when I first started back in ‘94, ‘95, when I started looking for jobs, there was one job in the state of Minnesota and 500 of us would show up there for it,” Bestul said during a phone interview May 12.
He said there are a lot of candidates out there, but not enough to fill all of the positions available in the state.
“I think everybody’s feeling the pain,” Bestul said.
While Goddard said labor shortages affect a wide range of industries, he also raised the specter of negative societal perception of police officers as a potential factor at play in his office’s hiring woes.
“Every time we see a fluctuation in society towards law enforcement, we see a dip (in law enforcement program enrollment),” Goddard said. “So right now, we could be seeing another dip.”
Crow Wing County Commissioner Paul Koering said he thinks political rhetoric surrounding the concept of defunding police departments is driving some officers to leave the field.
“When somebody’s burglarizing your house or you’re in a crisis situation, and you call 911 and there’s not enough police officers to be sent out there, just be careful what you wish for people, about defunding the police,” Koering said. “ … I’m a law enforcement guy. You know, this is a country of laws, and I don’t know what’s happened. I don’t hardly recognize it, with all these people who are just lawless people. It’s kind of scary.”
Goddard said he’s been asked more in the last two months — during the time of the murder trial of former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin and the Brooklyn Center police shooting of Daunte Wright — whether he wished he’d taken a different career path. The sheriff said he still loves his job and wouldn’t change anything, and he hopes his own son, who’s expressed a desire to enter the field as well, will follow in his footsteps. But he’s also heard from young people who said they wouldn’t consider it because of the political climate, he noted.
“There’s a certain population that are willing to do it, but I think there’s a lot more that if it (a law enforcement career) was maybe on their spectrum, they’re just saying, ‘No, not for me,’ and that’s unfortunate,” Goddard said.
"I’m a law enforcement guy. You know, this is a country of laws, and I don’t know what’s happened. I don’t hardly recognize it, with all these people who are just lawless people. It’s kind of scary."
— Paul Koering, county commissioner
Exams, licensing steady
Currently, Minnesota has a total of 417 law enforcement agencies and 10,923 licensed active peace officers, according to the POST Board. Future officers are trained at a number of Minnesota colleges and universities, including Alexandria Technical & Community College and Central Lakes College in Brainerd. Goddard noted both of these institutions make good partners in supplying job candidates.
Doug Anderson, director of communication and media for the state’s largest system of colleges and universities, Minnesota State, said it’s difficult to rely on enrollment data as a measure of interest in a given program.
“We don’t consider enrollment in law enforcement programs to be a reliable indicator of student interest in the field for a number of reasons — for example, enrollment is generally impacted by many factors including economic and demographic factors,” Anderson wrote in an email. “In addition, a student’s major by itself doesn’t determine whether he or she becomes a peace officer.”
A more reliable measure, Anderson noted, is the number of people who follow through with the POST exam to become licensed. According to data available from the POST Board, 2020 marked the highest number of exams taken since 2016 — 909, with 802 exams passed and 601 licensed. Ten years earlier in 2010, a similar number of exams were taken and passed, but the number of licenses issued was almost half of the number in 2020.
“The numbers were up from the previous year and the numbers have been pretty stable over decades,” wrote Peggy Strand, education coordinator for the POST Board, in an email. “The number of licenses actually issued have been affected by economics (see 2010-2013).”
Although there doesn’t appear to be sufficient evidence to support the idea fewer people are entering the law enforcement field in Minnesota, anecdotes abound of officers retiring early or leaving the field in favor of another career path. Minnesota Public Radio News reported earlier this year the Minneapolis Police Department saw double the number of officers leaving the force in 2020 than in a typical year, and still more on leave or not available for duty.
It’s unclear if this trend in a metropolitan department currently under intense scrutiny for its use of force practices — including by the U.S. Department of Justice — extends to departments of less notoriety. Veteran Minneapolis officers told The New York Times in July 2020 that morale is extremely low, and the Minneapolis Star Tribune reported some officers who quit specifically cited the mayoral decision to abandon the Third Precinct building and allow it to burn to the ground.
Bestul said there’s no denying heightened public focus on police work looms in the minds of those both considering becoming officers or currently working in departments. He said as a member of an advisory board at Central Lakes College, he knows of at least one specific example of a student changing their mind while in the law enforcement skills program.
“Is it a reality? Yes, I think this is a very tough job right now,” he said. “ … I think we have a lot of people that want to, you know, commit to serving their community. But, you know, they look at the cost, and do they want to do that?”
CHELSEY PERKINS may be reached at 218-855-5874 or email@example.com . Follow on Twitter at twitter.com/DispatchChelsey .