Police departments closing in rural Minnesota amid challenges with recruitment, retainment

Police departments closing in rural Minnesota amid challenges with recruitment, retainment

Police departments closing in rural Minnesota amid challenges with recruitment, retainment

Minnesota is losing police departments. Data from the Minnesota Board of Peace Officer Standards and Training shows between 2018 and 2022, the number of municipal police departments statewide dropped from 321 to 308. The number of licensed and active police officers decreased by 293.

Just over two hours west of the Twin Cities, there are signs of change in Clara City. The outline of an emblem shows where the police department used to operate at the city office building.

“If you had asked me 10 years ago, as a city manager, would I have wanted to get rid of our police department, I’d say ‘No way’, it’s the last thing I would want to get rid of,” said Steven Jones, the city administrator of Clara City. “I can tell you now that I don’t think we had much choice.”

His career has spanned more than 30 years. He took the job in Clara City in 2020 after more than two decades in nearby Montevideo.

“I think what happened here is happening a lot of places,” said Jones.

The Clara City Police Department had 2.5 positions. A police chief, a full-time officer and a part-time officer were responsible for patrolling the tight-knit community of about 1,400 people.

In the last three or four years, however, the department started facing challenges retaining and recruiting officers. The city began seeing turnover every month.

“It would be hard to find them and once we got applicants, if they got their foot in the door and got a little bit under their belt they either figured out they didn’t want to do it — and that happens in a new job — or once they found out they like it, it was pretty easy to move on because there’s a lot of openings in cities,” said Jones.

The police chief resigned last spring, which was a turning point for the city.

“The decision was made that we just need to go a different route, at least try it,” said Jones. “People felt so strongly one way or another.”

The city decided to enter into a partnership with the Chippewa County Sheriff’s Office in June 2022. Two deputies are now assigned to the city and they’ll eventually work out of the old police department.

“I think you’re going to have people that miss the local officer and know they lived down the street but our Sheriff’s deputies also live in the area and are known as well,” said Jones. “The Sheriff’s Office is able to keep people longer which means they’re going to be better trained, be around longer, have more experience.”

The 2.5-year agreement is saving Clara City about $100,000 per year, according to Jones.

The Sheriff’s Office added two positions to accommodate the new contract. The agreement covers the additional cost for the county agency, according to Sheriff Derek Olson.

“They’re going to handle most calls for service in that area while they’re on duty but of course they’re deputies so they have Chippewa County at their disposal to help,” said Olson.

He explained Chippewa County calls are often drug-related or for property crimes and during harsh winters, they also do rescue missions. Clara City now represents about a fifth of the Sheriff’s Office’s call volume.

“We haven’t had a history of a contract like this in our county before so I’ve told the guys it’s definitely going to be a learning curve. We’re going to learn and grow with the city. It’s been a great partnership thus far,” said Olson.

Two other communities west of the Twin Cities have also lost their police departments within the last year — Morris and Ortonville.

In a Facebook post, former Ortonville Police Chief Jason Mork announced the department closed on August 31, 2022. He wrote the City of Ortonville entered into a policing contract with Big Stone County.

“I would like to personally thank everyone that has supported the department over the years! It has been an honor and a privilege being your Chief of Police for the last 13 years and working in this community for the past 26 years!” said Mork, in the post. “I’m not going anywhere, you will start seeing me at the Sheriff’s Office, just in a different uniform and squad.”

The City of Morris, which is larger than Ortonville and Clara City, entered into a contract with the Stevens County Sheriff’s Office in July after disbanding its police department.

“We’ve seen really record numbers of people leaving law enforcement over the last three or four years,” said Jeff Potts, the executive director of the Minnesota Chiefs of Police Association. “A lot of them to retire, maybe early retirement but there are others who just chose to go into other careers.”

Potts served as the Bloomington Police Chief for more than a decade before retiring in 2021.

“I don’t ever remember a time when it’s been this challenging to recruit police officers,” said Potts. “This is affecting departments of all sizes and all areas of the state. The long-term impact of this is that we’re seeing fewer police officers in those departments which means they’re working more hours and it just becomes a different strain when you’re doing all of that work with fewer people.”

It’s leading to situations such as the one in Clara City.

“If this doesn’t turn around, that trend is going to continue,” said Potts. “We’re going to see fewer and fewer police officer positions in Minnesota.”

As Clara City maps out the challenges it faces in the years ahead, addressing staffing is one of the city’s top priorities. According to Jones, they’re now seeing shortages for other city departments too. The partnership they’ve entered into with the Sheriff’s Office is a sign of the collaboration that could come in the years ahead.

“I think it’s not only in police departments, that’s more or less the tip of the iceberg,” said Jones. “I think everybody on all levels is struggling to some extent.”