As a criminal justice instructor at St. Cloud State University, Shawn Williams has seen the number of students earning law enforcement skills certificates decline over the past few years – from 121 in 2015 to 82 in 2020. The program granted 73 such certificates in 2019, before the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Our numbers have fallen like everyone else’s, and, no, I don’t know the reason why,” said Williams, though he cited a host of likely factors: the cost of higher education, lackluster recruitment and, of course, the civil unrest spawned by police killings, most notably that of George Floyd in Minneapolis in 2020.
“Plain and simple, I think some families are scared away from public service,” he said. “But we can only guess.”
In Minnesota, students who want to become police officers must first earn a two- or four-year degree in law enforcement and then pass a skills certification course. Only then are they qualified to apply for jobs. So any change in the number of students working their way through those programs is cause for concern – especially at a time when law enforcement agencies are reporting hiring challenges.
‘The right students’
Alexandria Technical & Community College, which has one of the largest law enforcement programs in the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities system, has experienced a steady decline in the number of students who have earned both law enforcement degrees and skills certificates (some community colleges offer both) in recent years.
In 2015, the school handed out 155 skills certificates. In 2020, that number was 117 (it awarded 112 in 2019, pre-pandemic). Interestingly, the number of annual applications to the school’s law enforcement program has held fairly steady since 2015, though the yearly enrollment has dropped off.
“Our issue is getting the right students into the program so that they are eventually eligible to be hired,” said Scott Berger, the school’s vice president of academic affairs and dean of the law enforcement program. “It’s a tough sell because law enforcement is being looked at through an extremely critical lens right now. It’s unlike anything I have ever seen.”
Some police departments in Minnesota are getting fewer applicants than they used to when they post officer positions, Berger said. “What we have heard from agencies is that when they are looking to hire, the candidate pool has maybe a dozen to two dozen applicants where in the heyday it had maybe 100 to 200,” he said.
He doesn’t see a bright immediate future, either, adding: “For those students who want to go into law enforcement, a high school counselor will ask, ‘Why would you want do it now? Why not wait a few years until things settle down?’”
Keeping up with attrition
Jim Mortenson, the executive director of Law Enforcement Labor Services, a union that represents police officers, firefighters, 911 dispatchers, corrections officers, and public safety support staff, has collected data on graduates of law enforcement skills programs from most Minnesota colleges and believes the numbers represent a “significant trend.”
Besides the declines at St. Cloud State and Alexandria College, for instance, Minnesota State, Moorhead, had 70 skills graduates in 2015 and 31 in 2020 while Minnesota State, Mankato, had 113 skills graduates in 2015 and 67 in 2020. The University of Minnesota’s Crookston campus, meanwhile, saw a modest drop in graduates of its criminal justice program (it doesn’t offer skills certificates), from 15 in 2015 to 11 in 2020.
To be sure, some schools have held steady or seen increases, such as Minnesota West Community & Technical College, which had 12 skills graduates in 2015 and 16 in 2020, and Hennepin Technical College, which had 174 skills graduates in 2015 and 208 in 2020. (All of the enrollment numbers mentioned in this article were confirmed independently by MinnPost.)
But Mortenson remains concerned.
“It really started with Ferguson,” he said, using the shorthand term for the police killing of teenager Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, in 2014 – an incident that sparked unrest and calls for police reform. “We call it the ‘Ferguson effect.’ That’s when politics got into taking a swing at law enforcement and changed the narrative.”
Mortenson worked as an officer for 32 years in St. Cloud but couldn’t convince his son to go into law enforcement. “They are decent jobs,” he said. “They provide good security and benefits and retirement plans, but they don’t pay enough to take the type of beating officers are taking today.”
One result, Mortenson said, is that law enforcement agencies end up hiring people who wouldn’t have gotten serious consideration just a few years ago. According to his organization, the State Patrol and the Minneapolis and St. Paul police departments alone need about 400 officers to be fully staffed. “We just can’t keep up with normal attrition,” he said.
‘Harder to recommend’
In November, residents in Minneapolis — where Floyd’s murder galvanized the movement to reform policing — will vote on a referendum asking them whether the city should replace its police department with a Department of Public Safety. The new department would take a “comprehensive public health approach” to public safety, according to the language of the proposal, and “could include police officers.”
While that development has dominated the news, police departments across Minnesota have been dealing with their own staffing issues. In Willmar, for example, 26 people applied for three police officer jobs at the beginning of this year, Police Chief Jim Felt said. While that was enough to find qualified candidates to hire, it was a pittance compared with the 200 candidates or so who applied for an officer position in 1990, the year Felt joined the Willmar force.
Candidate numbers have tightened enough in recent years that the department sent a representative to a law enforcement recruiting fair at Alexandria College; it was the first time Felt could remember the department doing that. The agency is also looking at ways to better utilize social media and has talked with the local police union about increasing wages for veteran officers who accept jobs on the Willmar force.
“A number of students still have a desire to serve the public, but now, perhaps, they are looking at other avenues,” he said. “I think it’s still a very rewarding career. I’m glad I did it and I’m honored to be able to serve, but it’s getting harder to recommend it as a career.”
The Willmar Police Department is currently fully staffed with 35 officers — the maximum number allowed by the city council. About half of them are graduates of the law enforcement program at Ridgewater College, the local two-year school. The agency also has 10 part-time support workers, Felt said, including six Ridgewater students who work in areas like animal control and parking enforcement.