Over the past year, several occupations have found it difficult to find staffing to keep their businesses open. Many have resorted to reduced hours or been forced to shut down because, as hard as they may try, people aren’t answering the “Help Wanted” requests.
One industry that is bordering on crisis is law enforcement – a business that can’t afford to operate shorthanded. The number of people leaving law enforcement has been staggering – a problem compounded by the lack of replacements waiting in the wings to replace them. Wright County Sheriff Sean Deringer said that, to date, the Wright County Sheriff’s Office (WCSO) has been able to essentially maintain its staffing level and that historically there have been cycles of supply and demand in law enforcement. There are good times and bad times when it comes to having qualified candidates to fill vacancies. However, the current lack of applicants wanting to fill job openings is becoming dire and will likely have an impact well into the future.
“This is as bad as I’ve ever seen it,” Deringer said of the current work climate. “It has always had its ebbs and flows. You look at the period after 9/11, cops, firefighters, medical personnel and first responders were seen as heroes. All of those fields were flooded with people wanting to get into that profession. Now, it’s as bad as I’ve ever seen across the board in all of those fields and this isn’t going to correct itself in one or two years. This is going to take the better part of a decade.”
This isn’t just an issue facing Wright County. It’s statewide and nationwide. There are calls in many large cities to defund the police and turn over law enforcement to social workers and community leaders. The call from protesters for police reform gets heightened whenever there is a high-profile case of police misconduct.
The shooting of Michael Brown Jr. in Ferguson, Missouri in 2014 set off a wave of protests with the mantra “Hands Up! Don’t Shoot!” that cast a bad light on all law enforcement. The death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis Police Department officer Derek Chauvin last year led to worldwide attention and made the dim view many held of law enforcement reach an entirely different level – to the point that many officers have quit the profession in recent years, including in Wright County.
WCSO Chief Deputy Matt Treichler said there has been a growing negative sentiment toward law enforcement for the last few years, but the death of Floyd on a Minneapolis street corner took the public view of cops to a higher level of negativity.
“It was starting a little bit before the George Floyd incident, but that really magnified it and brought it to the forefront,” Treichler said. “Part of it may have been because of the location happening so close to us. It made some of the younger cops in our office take pause and ask, ‘Is this what I want to do for the next 30-plus years?’ For a couple of them their internal answer was, ‘No.’”
The number of officers leaving the profession is reaching a crisis level. The Minneapolis Police Department is more than 250 officers down from full staffing. The St. Paul Police Department is more than 150 officers down and the State Patrol is about 100 below full staffing levels.
“You just add those three agencies together and they’re 400 to 500 people short,” Deringer said. “I don’t believe there are 400 people in the state right now looking for a cop job. The scary part is that’s just three agencies. A couple of weeks ago I looked on the Minnesota Pool Line and there were more than 60 agencies advertising openings.”
Competition for the few available candidates has become so fierce that some agencies with the resources are offering up to a $5,000 signing bonus or are willing to pay some or all of a prospective employee’s student debt. In an attempt to retain its own officers, the Brooklyn Park Police Department recently offered a 16 percent raise over the next two years.
Just as critical an issue as the current staffing shortage is the lack of recruits attending school to become law enforcement officers that typically help fill the void when shortages occur. The largest officer training program in Minnesota is the Alexandria Technical & Community College. Typically, ATCC has about 300 budding law enforcement officers in a spring graduating class. In the spring of 2021, it only graduated 50 – a clear sign that the number of young people seeking out law enforcement as a career is diminishing.
“This cycle can only last so long before it becomes a crisis,” Treichler said. “It’s already reached that point for a lot of agencies. We’ve been fortunate that it hasn’t hit our office as hard as it has others, but this is a problem that looks like it’s going to continue and won’t get better for some time.”
Throughout the early stages of the exodus from the profession, Wright County has been able to maintain its numbers. Deringer said his top priority since taking office has been to make sure his employees feel valued and appreciated. It was something he was taught on his way up through the ranks of the WCSO and credits the long history of Wright County sheriffs having a positive relationship with the community as to why the office retains employees and why the public perception of his office is largely positive.
“I give credit to the generations of sheriffs and deputies that have come along before me,” Deringer said. “Trust and respect are earned. Every sheriff I’ve worked with and known in Wright County has understood that we are in the customer service industry and treat people with dignity and respect. In turn, when you do that, you earn the trust and respect from the public.”
That trust and respect is evidenced by the lack of use of force complaints made against WCSO personnel. While Chauvin was with the Minneapolis P.D. he had 17 use of force complaints filed against him from 2007 until the death of George Floyd in 2020. Wright County has kept such statistics since 2001. In that 21-year span, there have been a total of 17 use of force complaints against the entire agency of 160 people.
“I think that speaks to the character of the people in our office,” Deringer said. “One cop in Minneapolis had as many use of force complaints in 13 years than our entire office has had in more than 20.”
While Wright County has been spared the worst of the losses of personnel so far, Deringer said it’s only a matter of time before the strain comes to his office door. It takes a minimum of six months from the time a job posts until a patrol deputy is on the streets because of the time-consuming nature of posting a position, conducting interviews, doing background checks, conducting psychological evaluations, making a job offer and providing field training. That time lag can make the situation critical when an agency is shorthanded.
Currently, Wright County is just two deputies down at the moment – “we’re in a good place compared to so many others,” Deringer said – but if his office were down as few as six deputies, it would create a scenario where it would be difficult to allow vacation time because the office has to fulfill more than $9 million in contracts with 13 cities.
Historically, spring is the best time to recruit because it coincides with new officers graduating from police academies. In the spring of 2020, the WCSO had 139 applicants for open positions. This spring, it had just 36 applicants. Those dwindling numbers are causing storm clouds to gather on the horizon. The cities of Monticello, Otsego, St. Michael, Albertville and Delano are all going to likely be asking for additional the contract hours in 2023. With approximately eight people slated for retirement in the next year and the likelihood of needing eight to 12 new hires to meet the increase in contract hours by the time the next city contract cycle begins Jan. 1, 2023, the issue is likely going to be much more dire a year from now than it is at the moment.
“Every indication points to the situation getting worse before it gets better,” Deringer said. “You don’t want to look too far ahead because what you see is scary. Our office isn’t like other county departments. We’re open 24/7/365. We don’t take nights or holidays off. We’re going to need to have some serious discussions because we’re expected to provide a high level of service and to do that, you need to have the proper staffing – getting those who are available and retaining the ones you have. It’s going to be a significant challenge.”