Republicans and Democrats at the Minnesota Capitol have released very different plans for how to address violent crime in the state, which will be a hotly debated issue in the legislative session that begins on Monday.
But so far, the public safety agendas announced by Gov. Tim Walz, the GOP-led Senate and the DFL-majority House have at least one thing in common; help for recruiting and retaining police.
Many cities and counties have said they can’t find enough qualified applicants to fill open jobs, and Minnesota colleges are reporting fewer students seeking law enforcement certifications, leading to a shortage of workers in the field.
“In three major places we’re seeing a tough time hiring folks,” Walz told reporters. “In our public safety, in our schools and in our hospitals.”
The recruitment and retention plans do have major differences, however. And Walz’s plan is the only one that would broadly give local governments more money to expand the number of cops they can hire.
Trouble hiring police officers
City, county and police officials say hiring new officers has been difficult as of late. Bradley Peterson, executive director of the Coalition of Greater Minnesota cities, said one of the biggest public safety challenges in their communities is “simply being able to fill vacant positions in law enforcement.”
Pat Baustian, mayor of Luverne and president of the coalition, said they contract with the Rock County Sheriff’s Department for policing. The office recently had two open positions and had two applicants.
Matt Hilgart, government relations manager for the Association of Minnesota Counties, said his organization has heard anecdotally that hiring sheriff’s deputies, corrections officers and dispatchers right now “is an extreme challenge and only expected to get worse in the next couple of years.”
“Increasingly so, we’re focusing on the departure piece too,” Hilgart said in an email. “Our state has seen a major increase in the number of officers/deputies leaving their jobs due to mental stresses and PTSD.”
Jeff Potts, executive director of the Minnesota Chiefs of Police Association, said “the recruitment issue is real.”
Potts said a bigger city that once got hundreds of applicants might now only have dozens. And smaller cities, especially in Greater Minnesota, might be getting three or four applicants instead of 10 to 15, Potts said, meaning quality of applicants is a huge issue.
“The schools that teach law enforcement, their enrollment is down,” Potts said. “And so what’s happening is to a large degree, police officers just go from one city to another. And so you really aren’t solving the problem. When you hire in one city but that police officer came from another city you just created another vacancy.”
Schools with criminal justice programs are also having trouble finding students. Minneapolis College (formerly MCTC), for instance, is suspending its law enforcement program after a “steep decline” in people choosing the major in the past five years, said spokesperson Kathy Rumpza. There has been nearly a 60 percent decline in the number of students in the program, Rumpza said. (The Minnesota State system has five other law enforcement programs in the metro area, however.)
Three competing plans for boosting police
Senate Republicans said during a news conference this week that they’re still working out the final details of their public safety proposals. But Senate Majority Leader Jeremy Miller, a Republican from Winona, said they are planning a “very large” spending package aimed at helping police.
The legislation will include retention bonuses for officers as well as pension reforms, Miller said, plus scholarships for high school students or others who want to enter law enforcement as a profession.
Miller said another possibility is a marketing campaign meant to entice people into the field, something he said has been successful in other states at bringing a “positive spotlight” to policing.
“So much has been done with the ‘defund the police’ movement and the ‘dismantle the police’ movement to put sort of a negative spotlight on police officers that they’re having trouble recruiting new folks to enter the profession,” Miller said.
The GOP also might introduce some sort of incentive for military veterans to enter policing, Miller said.
House Democrats, meanwhile, released a bill last week that would create a task force aimed at recruiting new officers and increasing the ethnic diversity and “professional background” diversity of officers.
The task force would be asked to identify barriers to recruiting officers and develop strategies and policies to help find new officers, particularly of diverse backgrounds. It would then issue a report to the Legislature on its findings by January of 2024.
The bill, introduced by Rep. Cedrick Frazier, a New Hope DFLer who is vice chair of the House’s Public Safety and Criminal Justice Reform Finance and Policy Committee, said he wants the task force in part to look at “how do we best reflect the communities that an officer serves,” but also how communities that “aren’t so diverse have diverse officers” so that people traveling through those areas can see officers that reflect their background.
“We have a lot of licensed professions that have a dearth of candidates, in particular quality candidates, so we’ll take a look at that,” Frazier said generally of recruitment and retention.
Frazier’s bill also includes $22 million in grants for police and sheriff’s departments to implement or expand foot patrols — done outside of a squad car — in areas with disproportionately high crime rates. Departments that receive money also must use half of it to work with community groups to either establish, maintain or expand crisis teams of social workers or mental health professionals to be first responders or act alongside police or to “enhance community violence prevention programs.”
Lastly, Walz has proposed $1.97 million in this year’s supplemental budget, and another nearly $4 million in the next two-year budget for police recruitment. The money would pay for recruiters, offer $1,000 in annual student loan payments for newly-hired officers over five years, develop a career website for first responders and create a recruitment advertising campaign.
Walz also wants to spend $300 million over the next three years specifically to help cities, counties and tribes to use for public safety. The cash would be a form of local government aid — a state subsidy that helps pay for basic government functions.
Walz said some local governments might choose to use the money on adding more police officers. Others might hire social workers, or, as Commissioner of the Department of Public Safety John Harrington said, pay for a co-responder program, a homeless shelter or youth support.
“This is not the state dictating to the locals what those needs are,” Harrington said. “This is the state listening to the locals saying ‘this is what we need.’”
What cities, counties and police say
Walz’s local government aid plan is unique in that it could help cities and counties add new police jobs rather than fill the ones they have money for now.
Potts, from the Chiefs of Police Association, said recruiting people to existing job openings already budgeted is a bigger issue than money for hiring additional officers. But generally, local government officials say the prospect of additional local government aid for public safety would be welcome.
Hilgart, from the counties association, said they are “excited about the prospects of flexible funding to allow for additional hiring, increase wages and/or bonuses to keep people in their jobs, build out mental health responses, invest in additional training, and more.” He said counties might use the money to expand mental health resources for public safety professionals, too.
Mayor of Luverne Baustian said his city could use money to raise salaries for new deputies to draw more applicants or to address a shortage of ambulance services.
“Any dollars are much appreciated in the public safety aspect,” Baustian said.
Before Walz announced his public safety budget plan, GOP senator Miller said Republicans aren’t considering a general increase to local government aid because the Legislature boosted the funding last year.
House Speaker Melissa Hortman, DFL-Brooklyn Park, said it’s not necessary to carve out local government aid money specifically to add more police or for public safety. She said the DFL supports local government aid and doesn’t want to tell cities how to spend their money.
“I think that most cities right now are budgeted for more police officers than they’re able to hire and retain because of the workforce shortage,” Hortman said. “If the city of Brooklyn Park determines they’re going to use their local government aid for policing that is a decision that is made by the city council members and the mayors in the city of Brooklyn Park as it is in the city of Minneapolis.”