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A blueprint for better policing in Minnesota

REUTERS/Adam Bettcher
Police assembled on Interstate 94 during Saturday night's protest march over the July 6 killing of Philando Castile by a police officer in Falcon Heights.

Earlier this week, one of us (Densley) told MinnPost readers that Minnesota’s unique model of peace officer education was a failed experiment. He called for real change. This prompted the other one of us (Olson), to ask, “What does real change look like? In real terms.” Together, we’ve drafted a blueprint for better policing in the state. Some might say it’s radical. We say it’s responsible.  

Education reform

densley photo
James Densley

First, we need education reform. The current standard, a law-enforcement degree, especially a two-year law-enforcement degree, taught disproportionally by retired cops, is at best an echo chamber and at worst an assembly line to produce warriors, not guardians. It’s antithetical to diversity (of all forms) and the source of all “group think” in the profession. We can change this by mandating a four-year degree for entry into a peace officer training program, and allowing the degree to be in any discipline. We know this system works because federal law enforcement, like the FBI, already does it. They recruit elite college graduates then put them through a rigorous police academy to teach all the “police” stuff Minnesotans currently think is unteachable outside a college classroom. 

The four-year degree also solves another problem: immaturity. Police chiefs don’t want 20-year-olds running around with a badge and a gun. They want people a little older. A little wiser. Career changers. People who have graduated from the “university of life” and the local university. A full university education, moreover, challenges future peace officers to think differently about people and the social and economic worlds they inhabit. Liberal arts and STEM graduates make great 21st-century cops — we just need to give them a chance.

Photo by John Hamilton
Jon R. Olson

To attract top talent to Minnesota law enforcement, however, we also need to increase entry-level salaries and/or offer student-loan forgiveness as an incentive. The men and women who choose careers in law enforcement, who choose to run toward danger rather than away from it, should be paid commensurate with the hazards of their profession.

Training reform

Next, we need training reform. Currently, the Minnesota Board of Peace Officer Standards and Training (POST) sets the learning objectives, but how they are met is at the discretion of colleges and universities. As a result, quality is variable, often contingent on instructor personality and performance. And every college and university has its own methods of screening (or not) its students into the program.

The solution here is standardization. A single state police academy (or academies), perhaps collocated with the Minnesota State Police training facility at Camp Ripley, funded by state dollars. Any college graduate can apply to attend the academy. They are then rigorously screened (background checks, interviews, mental and physical health and wellness exams, etc.), with an eye to whether the applicant will be successfully licensed (i.e., hired) not just license-eligible in the end. If selected, they are paid a stipend while in training. And while in training, students will learn to face history and themselves. They’ll read “The New Jim Crow.” They’ll learn all about implicit bias, procedural justice, de-escalation, mental health first aid, less-lethal options, and the other stuff the current curriculum breezes over.

In college, students can repeat and retake classes until they pass. Don’t forget, Cs get degrees. Not so in our proposed academy. Students will be held to the highest standards of professionalism and competence. But this is not boot camp. This is Harvard. For cops. Cops who will go from being classmates to being colleagues, building a network of excellence across the state.

On-the-job reform

Finally, we need department-level reform. Larpenteur Avenue, where Philando Castile was shot and killed last week, is about five miles long, yet is policed by four different police departments (Roseville, St. Anthony, St. Paul, Maplewood). There are 331 municipal police department​s in Minnesota, 87 county sheriffs’ offices, plus a handful of other specialty, state, and tribal agencies. In total, 441 agencies service a little over 5 million people. By contrast, the United Kingdom, a country of 65 million people, is policed by only 48 different agencies. Something doesn’t add up.

Our somewhat surprising proposition, therefore, is to end municipal law-enforcement departments and, instead, shift all law-enforcement functions to the county level under elected sheriffs. This would cut bureaucracy, promote collaboration over competition among agencies, and fund police properly by sharing the cost across a far larger tax base. The public is crying out for accountability. Well, sheriffs are elected. If their agency is performing poorly, people can vote them out.

Additionally, restructure the review process for police performance, to include citizen oversight of EVERY police agency. Citizen boards would not only receive quarterly briefings on department performance, but also participate in promotion boards, ensuring consent of the community in decision-making. Promotion boards would also borrow anonymous peer review from academia, whereby senior officers selected at random from both within the department and from other departments, would weigh in to ensure fair and impartial promotions.

All Minnesota peace officers deserve mandated counseling, removing the stigma of “needing help” to talk about the horrific things they see on a routine basis. They also deserve shift rotations that are conducive to sleep, and sabbatical leave to ensure they don’t become jaded or cynical. Further, they deserve assignments that get them policing real criminal-justice issues, like gun violence, not “broken windows” and taillights.

And finally, to achieve 21st-century accountability, we need to match 21st-century policing with 21st-century technology. This does not include military-grade equipment that is anathema to the community, but rather body cameras for every officer, front and back; 360-degree view (not just dash-cams) cameras on all squad cars; less-lethal tools; and traffic enforcement cameras that, as in Europe, eliminate unnecessarily confrontational traffic stops.

Next steps

These are but a few concrete solutions for a better policing model in Minnesota. It will take political will and courage to turn these words into deeds. There will be disagreement along the way. But we hope this starts the conversation. At the end of the day, we all want the same thing: a system that produces exemplary officers of unmatched quality, character, and training. A model program. The best police officers in the nation. Police for America.

James Densley, Ph.D., is an associate professor of criminal justice at Metropolitan State University and the author of “Minnesota’s Criminal Justice System” (Carolina Academic Press, 2016). He holds a doctorate in sociology from the University of Oxford.

Jon R. Olson, M.A., teaches at Metropolitan State University and Carleton College. He is a retired commander in the U.S. Navy where he served as an intelligence officer for 21 years, and is the co-author of two political/military fiction thrillers.


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Comments (8)

  1. Submitted by Jim Million on 07/13/2016 - 10:15 am.

    Better, but still a bit shallow here…

    “We can change this by mandating a four-year degree for entry into a peace officer training program, and allowing the degree to be in any discipline.”

    I find this statement antithetical to the mission of better training and officer community relationship.
    Certainly some sensible core package should be required of any “pre-law enforcement” track: some sociology, psychology, probably anthropology, maybe civics, etc. After that, diversity of electives would serve to broaden and enhance candidate mix, affording some academic basis for minimizing future “group think,” at least to the extent diverse knowledge may limit that. We might look to our nurse practitioner programs for some guidance here. We certainly should find some parallel concepts with law enforcement practitioner in that. In any case, we should allow four-year institutions to offer (or not) this curriculum at their discretion. At this level, I believe we do not want a production line model. The police academy would serve that role.

    Candidates might then go into the proposed academy for specialized education and field training. Perhaps candidates might also be taken directly into community police departments as “probies,” with some secondary status before academy training. This might be a better quality assurance process than direct academy appointment for some trainees. This split track might also give these probationary officers chances to validate their personal decisions regarding suitability, saving both candidates and departments the academy training expense and ultimate issues of “fit.” There might also be possible financial arrangements regarding full academy certification and licensing. Candidates without this proposed law enforcement core certainly would be considered. Those with the core would also find worthy careers outside of law enforcement, as well.

    Some pre-law enforcement curriculum before police academy admission seems as helpful as any other pre-graduate school courses. For future police officers we would be wise to focus on some core education in people dynamics, as proposed here.

  2. Submitted by James Hamilton on 07/13/2016 - 11:47 am.


    for a reasoned proposal. It’s a good place to start the discussion.

    I’d like to suggest a more radical interim approach: a top to bottom review of every licensed peace officer in Minnesota, beginning with those against whom a disproportionate number of complaints, whether upheld or not, have been lodged. Apply the same rigorous screening (background checks, interviews, mental and physical health and wellness exams, etc.), proposed above to these officers. Where deficiencies are noted, determine whether remedial work will permit the officer to retain his or her license. If not, do not renew their licenses.

    This may well require statutory changes in many areas, including licensing laws, veterans’ preference laws, and civil service laws, not to mention collective bargaining agreements. By making this a part of a license renewal process, some of these issues (e.g., collective bargaining, veterans’ preference) may be capable of being avoided.

    It also has the benefit of removing control over who remains on the street from local officials and placing it in the hands of disinterested third parties.

    We can not look only to future hires. We must begin to examine all of the apples already in the barrel.

  3. Submitted by joe smith on 07/13/2016 - 03:02 pm.

    Leave it 2 professors to come up with

    a 4 year degree and forgiving college loans for potential police officers. I think a new approach to helping the police protect and serve their communities is a great idea. Have the professors meet with cops and come up with a program that will help police deal with all the different situations that come up with little to no warning. I am not sure having police officers read “the New Jim Crow” and having them take a class on implicit racism will help them in the moment of a crisis. More time spent on crisis situations and how to defuse them makes sense.

    On a side note, since the police officer who shot the innocent Mr Castile was not white, did he suffer from implicit racism or did he just panic?

  4. Submitted by Ray Schoch on 07/13/2016 - 07:53 pm.

    I like it

    Not every detail, perhaps, but overall, this seems a good place to start, and maybe better than good. I’m on board with better starting pay and better education (specifically including “The New Jim Crow,” as well as other sources to widen the horizons of prospective officers), much better training in the use of non-lethal means of restraint and weaponry, and the idea of a police academy for law enforcement officers state-wide seems to me a good one. I also like – very much – doing away with tiny, local, parochial police departments. Yes, let’s go to county-wide or county-based law enforcement, and make sure the sheriff is an office that shows up on an election-day ballot with some frequency.

    Questions of reciprocity and equivalent training will arise, and rules will need to be worked out in those cases, but the obstacles there are not insurmountable – and if police agencies can manage to come up with a workable system, maybe the State Board of Teaching can be shaken out of its coma, as well.

    As a generally law-abiding citizen, I do not want confrontation to be the model for encounters I may have with police officers, and I’m even less enthused about having to deal with the sort of authoritarian, “warrior” personality that I see and read about all too often. I also very much like the notion of civilian/police overview – some procedure/method/organizational model that will include ordinary citizens (who are not themselves retired cops)k to review departmental and individual actions and procedures. Policing ought to be a cooperative venture, not an “us vs. them” approach.

    As for Mr. Smith’s snarky question, perhaps the most accurate answer at this point is that the officer in question suffered from both. It happens.

    • Submitted by Mike Magnuson on 07/14/2016 - 09:37 pm.

      Education and money solves everything

      So, to me the only winner in this proposal is the education system that is not only failing officers but almost every profession in our Country. Education reform I cant agree more. From entry level grade school to the poorly constructed Masters programs that are bought and sold and a staggering amount. An officer on the street lives a life much unlike any of ours. The live a life and death situation and it is increasing daily. Somehow in your minds of wisdom you think more time in a classroom and more money will allow an officer al alternate safety mechanism? Better yet he will be so educated he can read the mind of a criminal. Hogwash. You have all been reading to much and had far too many glasses of Merlot. None of us really know what happened that evening other than the short video we reviewed. We here statements from a woman that is jacked up on weed and most likely drinking and who knows what else. We hear the officer screaming in disbelief that he had to discharge his firearm. Throughout the video you can hear him screaming. He is not a cowboy. He is not rambo. He is a human being that just lived through something he is obviously very distraught about. You seem like educated people but yet this slips right by you. Put yourself in his shoes how this played out. An armed robbery just occurred it comes across the radio. A vehicle comes into view and the occupants match the description. You pull the car over worried this is the armed robber. Tensely you walk up the the vehicle hand on gun in the holster. You ask the driver for his identification. As he starts reaching he tells you he has a weapon and a conceal and carry permit. Your fear level just went through the roof you immediately try to control the situation by yelling don’t move don’t reach for it. Stop don’t move but the driver continues to roll over and reach down. You have 1/100th of a second to decide if tonight you go home or he goes home. We have all seen the youtube videos where the cops all get shot in the face and left on the side of the road to die. Is it panic that sets in that makes you use deadly force or is it the instinct to live. Tell me how more years of education and more pay is going to change the outcome of that evening? t have this simple problem solver. Respect the police, there authority and their power. This simply has gone to the wayside. .

  5. Submitted by Ed Day on 07/14/2016 - 12:09 am.

    Four-year degrees

    In the early 2000s at least a few suburban police chiefs told me about studies that linking a decreased incidence of police brutality (and an overall improvement in most facets of law enforcement) with officers who had earned a four-year bachelor’s degree (compared to officers with two-year degrees, who tended to have more positive performance stats than those with no post-high school education).

    So this line of thinking is not new. The incentives to do so as proposed in this article is not.

    What might have been clarified in the intervening years is the reason why. (I don’t have those answers). However, it was certainly more ambiguous than having people read “The New Jim Crow.” The chiefs I spoke with speculated that less-quantifiable things like being a little more mature, being exposed to a variety of new ideas in general studies courses they wouldn’t otherwise take, and simply leaving their hometowns to attend a four-year school and meeting a variety of different people helped shape those officers.

    I’m all for requiring a four-year degree for new officers (unless they get their degrees entirely online).

  6. Submitted by Dan Berg on 07/14/2016 - 05:36 am.


    The idea that traffic cameras would help is problematic. They tend not to actually improve safety and are legally troubling for a number of reasons. They only are capable of a very limited level of enforcement and items like a broken tail-light, the reason Castile was stopped, aren’t one of them. Unless we have cameras absolutely everywhere (I’m not a fan of that idea) and they are used to send tickets to all offenders driver, jay-walkers, cyclists, for all offenses, tail-lights, not signaling a lane change, loud motorcycles, etc., police will still have plenty of reasons to pull people over if they so choose. Otherwise they are simply to limited to have the author’s desired effect and are really just a way of generating revenue from a select slice of the population. Actually the thing we are trying to avoid.

    More fundamentally, the idea that simply reducing the number of interactions police have with citizens as a partial solution is flawed. It seems to echo the method many think is manifesting in Baltimore with the police simply not policing as the crime rate goes up. Just so they can avoid confrontation. I think there are likely things we can do to make traffic stops safer but simply avoiding police/citizen interaction isn’t a useful solution.

  7. Submitted by Lydia Howell on 07/15/2016 - 06:41 am.


    Terrific article with concrete proposals (that some community activists have proposed FOR YEARS to deaf politicians). In a democratic society, police are supposed to be under CIVILIAN OVERSIGHT—meaning REGULATED by ELECTED REPRESENTATIVES at local and state levels & held to ACCOUNTABILITY by the JUDICIAL SYSTEM. Currently, NEITHER is happening. FRI. JULY 15 (9AM) on KFAI RADIO: Further discussion of solutions with Michelle Gross co-founder of COMMUNITIES UNITED AGAINST POLICE BRUTALITY cuapb (dot) org and COMMITTEE FOR PROFESSIONAL POLICING (CFPP) on Facebook. Includes current effort on November ballot referendum to require Minneapolis police to be self-insured (like malpractice insurance) that would remove some of the most abusive officers. KFAI 90.3 FM Minneapolis 106.7 Fm St. Paul ONLINE after broadcast on CATALYST show at kfai (dot) org

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