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After George Floyd: Northland colleges, police recruiting suffer

A News Tribune examination of law enforcement training found local colleges hit hard in 2021-22, cutting new enrollments by half or more.

College student smiles.
Cadet Kello Brown smiles during six weeks of summer skills training at Fond du Lac Tribal and Community College in Cloquet. The numbers for cadets are in decline, putting local agencies in a tougher spot when it comes to hiring.
Contributed / Fond du Lac Tribal and Community College
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HIBBING — Since he was a boy, all Tyler Rooney wanted to be was a law enforcement officer.

“This is my dream job,” said Rooney, 20, class commander in the two-year law enforcement program at Hibbing Community College. “I know it sounds a little bit crazy to say that, especially nowadays, but it’s the job I’ve thought about doing since I was 12.”

police officer
Tyler Rooney, class commander at Hibbing Community College.
Contributed / Tyler Rooney

Rooney, of Grand Rapids, Minnesota, is following his father into the profession, something many peace officers have in common.

It’s a career popularized locally in the 1970s, when Hibbing became one of the first three community colleges in the state to offer a program that put cadets in working uniforms within two years of starting post-secondary school.

Back then, job openings in Northeastern Minnesota would draw hundreds of applicants, sources said. Cadets in the area’s schools, including Fond du Lac Tribal and Community College in Cloquet, generally had to matriculate to other places after graduation and find their way back home, if that was their preference, after gaining experience.

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But the profession absorbed a casualty to its reputation with the murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis police in May 2020.

The resulting societal reexamination of policing has hit the local colleges hard — a development that has had cascading impacts on agencies recruitment of new officers.

“Which mom and dad are going to allow their kids to do it if they watch national media?” Hibbing Community College’s Brent Bradley, law enforcement program director and instructor, said, describing cadets as mostly traditional students who are leaving home for the first time.

“I can see parents telling them, 'Why don’t you wait?'" he added.

Students practice skills.
Cadets Whitney Podgorak, from left, Caleb Smith and Nan Webb work together during six weeks of summer skills training at Fond du Lac Tribal and Community College in Cloquet. Skills training is the final piece of their education prior to joining the law enforcement work force.
Contributed / Fond du Lac Tribal and Community College

The latest numbers detail the first signals locally of a particular impact of Floyd’s death: Fond du Lac’s cadet numbers are down, by roughly half, from recent figures, and Hibbing only features 12 first-year students, when normally the school attracts 30-35.

“In our heyday, we had a couple hundred students walking around on campus at various points of their law enforcement degree, and we were graduating 65-70, even as high as 80,” said Wade Lamirande, Fond du Lac’s law enforcement program coordinator. “We’ll have roughly 20 after skills graduation this summer.”

Lamirande described it the continuation of a "downward trend," one that saw 36 graduates last year compared to 70 in his first year in the role in 2014.

Once chief of police in Cloquet, Lamirande believes in policing as a “noble profession,” and notes that it’s not just Minneapolis police's actions and what he called "heightened criticism of law enforcement" that have hurt numbers. COVID-19 has had the effect of taking a profession filled with hands-on learners and putting its instruction intermittently online, he said.

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Just as the numbers of cadets are in sharp decline, the demand for new recruits is soaring as a wave of post-traumatic stress-induced retirements and other defections accrue.

"Normally, I tell kids don't even think about getting hired around here," Bradley said. "Now, the smaller PDs are calling me going, 'Hey, give us somebody!'"

Lamirande agreed.

“Departments are screaming for our candidates,” Lamirande said. “We’re getting more and more inquiries from agencies outside of the state of Minnesota. And some of our candidates who want to go somewhere warmer have that option with the degree they earn here.”

Student practices writing a ticket.
Logan Goss practices writing a report during law enforcement skills training at Fond du Lac Tribal and Community College in Cloquet.
Contributed / Fond du Lac Tribal and Community College

The drop in college numbers is making it chaotic on hiring, sources said, explaining how smaller departments are being impacted most.

“The reality is we’re recruiting staff from other agencies,” St. Louis County Sheriff Ross Litman said. “Through interactions with our deputies, they see this place as somewhere they want to work.”

St. Louis County features 106 sworn deputies, more than quadruple the size of the Virginia Police Department, which was recently the beneficiary of two graduates of Hibbing Community College as well as the additions of two veteran officers from each of the Dakotas.

“We’ve been fortunate, but we’re still stuck trying to fill spots on a smaller scale department with fewer candidates,” said Virginia Police Chief Nicole Mattson, describing how her department of 25 has lost six officers since 2015 to St. Louis County.

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She’s careful to say there are no hard feelings, just reality. She's "alarmed" by the current situation, she said. While her department is fully staffed, it feels tenuous.

“It’s a stressful situation when we’re lucky to get three to six applicants every time we’re hiring,” she said. “Everyone is battling for basically the same applicants.”

New hires have to complete full background checks, along with passing psychological exams and physicals.

“There are still standards,” Mattson said, echoing a sentiment made by other sources. “If they don’t meet the bar set by our city and the (Minnesota Board of Peace Officer Standards and Training), you wait until you get a good candidate.”

This isn’t the first erosion in police recruiting.

Many departments have stopped guaranteeing health care coverage post-retirement, and earlier this century the marker to trigger full retirement in the Public Employees Retirement Association rose for police from one year of service to 15.

“Those things have played a big role" in attracting new people to the profession, Mattson said.

Wages are better at larger departments, and multiple sources for this story said wages needed to be increased across the board.

Students talk in a group.
Paul Lee, from left, Nquoa Yang and Spencer Pitzel converse during law enforcement skills training at Fond du Lac Tribal and Community College in Cloquet.
Contributed / Fond du Lac Tribal and Community College

“I foresee the wage is going to have to start going up to draw people,” said Bradley, of Hibbing Community College. “High school graduates can get hired at the mines starting at $30 an hour right off the bat.” 

A retired 30-year member of the Grand Rapids police, Bradley was scheduled to visit Greenway High School last week on a recruitment effort to meet students. When he attended Hibbing Community College in the 1980s, his first-year class featured 93 cadets. Now, he told how he's not filling one vacated full- and part-time position each because there’s currently no need to have multiple offerings of first-year courses.

"I've been a police officer since 1985, and everything runs in a cycles," he said. "I see this downward trend going up again eventually."

Litman also described himself as “optimistic,” even though his sheriff’s office, which averaged 74 applicants for its annual roster of openings in the five years leading up to 2021, received only 38 applicants for its 10 hires in 2021.

“I think the climate is changing already, but it’s going to take some more time for individuals to get back focused on seeing law enforcement as a profession they want to pursue,” Litman said. “It’s a great place to work, and has been a very rewarding career for me. I just believe that other people see that as well.”

For the cadet, Rooney, it’s still too soon to say where he figures to land a job.

But he recognizes the opportunity for himself and others joining the profession. They talk about it among themselves, he said, adding: “With everything that’s going on right now, it opens up positions for us to go out and immediately start working and making an impact on the communities where we get hired to serve.”

Brady Slater covers St. Louis County and transportation for the Duluth News Tribune. He's a veteran journalist, and a University of Pittsburgh graduate who was born and raised in the Northland. He can be reached by emailing bslater@duluthnews.com or by calling or texting 218-721-2724.
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