Official seeks to correct record on Toward Zero Deaths program
In the wake of Nisswa Mayor Fred Heidmann's accusations, a law enforcement liaison involved with the initiative pushed back, reporting the training officers undergo and how it's funded.
A representative of Minnesota’s Toward Zero Deaths program defended its goals and officer training Tuesday, Sept. 15, after Nisswa Mayor Fred Heidmann’s arrest at a traffic stop last month put it in the spotlight.
Frank Scherf, northeast Minnesota law enforcement liaison for the Toward Zero Deaths initiative of the Minnesota Department of Public Safety, told Crow Wing County commissioners the mayor was wrong when he lambasted officers for not patrolling the streets and accused them of not being qualified to pull people over as part of the enforcement push. “Don’t you guys have something better to do like patrol the (expletive) streets?” Heidmann said to the officers during the Aug. 29 incident, later adding, “Go do your jobs, you’re not drug people, you’re not even qualified to be pulling people over for this (expletive).”
A Pequot Lakes officer and a Nisswa officer were the targets of Heidmann’s ire, and they can be heard explaining to Heidmann on body camera footage they’ve made the stop during a Toward Zero Deaths shift. Heidmann had no apparent connection to those in the pulled-over vehicle, but in a statement after his arrest for disorderly conduct and obstructing the legal process, he noted his motivation for confronting officers was because of concern about the impression the traffic stop was making on tourists who may have witnessed it.
“Every one of these officers, in order to work a Toward Zero Deaths shift, has to have specialized training in standardized field sobriety, and what we call ARIDE, which is advanced roadside impaired driving enforcement,” Scherf told the board at its committee of the whole meeting. “ … They know what to look for. They know how to test people for impaired driving, they know what the signs of impaired driving (are) — whether it’s the way the vehicle is being driven, the way the person is acting, signs and indicators inside those vehicles.
“So my point, I guess, is just to let you and everyone else out there know that the officers do have the training. It doesn’t matter that they’re from a small agency. It doesn’t matter if they’re from one of the largest agencies in the state of Minnesota. They all have to have the same training to work these Toward Zero Deaths shifts.”
Scherf explained the initiative began in 2003 as a spinoff from the Safe and Sober program with the goal of reducing traffic deaths in the state to zero. He said the year before the program got its start, there were 655 traffic fatalities in the state and that was trending upward. In 2019, there were 364 deaths, a nearly 44% reduction. Scherf said based on those figures, one could extrapolate that approximately 5,000 people didn’t die in crashes that might otherwise have.
“People will ask me, why Toward Zero Deaths? Is that even possible?” Scherf said. “And my response to that is, what number do we put on that? Is there something that’s acceptable other than zero? And there truly isn’t. Of those 5,000 people that are still alive today, is that one of my family members, one of my loved ones, one of yours, or me or you? We don’t know that.”
Commissioner Paul Koering asked Scherf to clarify how enforcement as part of the Toward Zero Deaths program impacted the daily patrol duties of officers. He said he’s heard concerns expressed from his constituents about whether the state initiative takes away from their time on local streets.
“Let’s just say it’s a small town and they have a main road going through there like (Highway) 371,” Koering said. “Those taxpayers that live in that municipality, they’re paying those police officers out of their property taxes, and they’re paying their wages so that they can in essence drive down people’s roads so they can be a deterrent to somebody robbing their cabin or robbing their house. And if they’re out on the highway all the time, if that’s what they’re doing all the time, I think that, almost, the citizens in the city are kind of getting, not getting the protection that they’re wanting or they’re expecting.”
Scherf said he spent 30 years as a police officer in Grand Rapids and worked many Safe and Sober and Toward Zero Deaths shifts himself. He said the shifts are scheduled aside from normal patrol duties.
“They’re not taking away from the hours people are paying for,” Scherf said. “ … Officers are using their days off to go out and work these shifts.”
Koering suggested Scherf add this information to his presentation, given the fact it’s something people are concerned about. He then said because of his previous role providing the medical examiner transport service for the county, he’d been at the scene of a number of crashes during those 13 years.
“I can tell you when I drive around the county, as soon as I drive by where that car accident happened, it pops right back into my head,” Koering said. “I can point them out. So it’s stuck with me. And yes, going toward zero deaths is a good thing.”
Chairman Steve Barrows said he agreed with Koering’s last point.
“Thank you very much for what you do and the officers that have volunteered,” Barrows said. “ … It’s a thankless job out there. It’s a lonely job. Very dangerous.”
CHELSEY PERKINS may be reached at 218-855-5874 or firstname.lastname@example.org . Follow on Twitter at twitter.com/DispatchChelsey .