Over the past few years, local law enforcement agencies have noticed a decline in applications for law enforcement positions. Where many organizations were accustomed to seeing hundreds of applicants, they are experiencing drought-like conditions.
In August 2023, Goodhue Police Chief Josh Smith submitted his resignation at a city council meeting in Goodhue, Minn. Smith, protesting low wages for his officers, referenced the city paying $22 per hour to officers as a major point of contention. Shortly after Smith’s resignation, Goodhue’s one full-time police officer and five of their part-time officers quit their jobs with the city. While city officials were left with a conundrum with no police force, they ended up contracting law enforcement services with the Goodhue County Sheriff’s Office.
While the city of Goodhue was losing officers at a pay rate of $22 per hour, all departments referenced in this article are paying more.
• Minnesota State Patrol: Starting at $33.81 per hour
• Fillmore County Sheriff’s Office: Starting at $29.12 per hour
• La Crescent Police Department: Starting at $26.36 per hour
• Preston Police Department: Starting at $26.47 per hour (full-time)
• Houston County Sheriff’s Office: Starting at $31.66 per hour
Minnesota State Patrol
The Minnesota State Patrol is broken up into 11 districts throughout a state of 87 counties. In the Southeast District, there are 11 counties that include Houston, Fillmore, Mower, Freeborn, Winona, Olmsted, Dodge, Steele, Wabasha, Goodhue and Rice. Within this district, there are six different stations to spread out trooper coverage. The Rochester District has a total of 66 state troopers, including a commercial vehicle unit and investigators. While the Rochester District doesn’t have any openings, other districts throughout the State of Minnesota do have openings.
According to Colonel Langer, “State Patrol has three different hiring processes: Traditional, LETO (Law Enforcement Training Opportunity), and ETSO (Experienced Traffic Safety Officer). The traditional hiring process is for those with a two- or four-year degree in law enforcement and post board certified. LETO is for anyone with any two- or four-year degree from an accredited university. The State Patrol then provides candidates with the educational requirements necessary to take the Minnesota Peace Officer Standards and Training (POST) exam, which is required to become a licensed peace officer. ETSO is for experienced officers wanting to become a trooper. They are still required to go through our academy, but it has been shortened to 12 weeks.”
The Minnesota State Patrol uses their LETO program to attract people from all walks of life who might not have considered a career in law enforcement. According to Langer, the department is also committed to recruiting more women to the force. Col. Matt Langer signed the 30X30 pledge, a nationwide initiative to advance women in policing. It includes not only recruiting, but also ensuring policies and procedures are free of all bias, including gender bias and discriminatory practices.
During the 2019-2020 61st Academy, the Minnesota State Patrol had 466 LETO applications and 333 traditional applicants.
Those numbers dropped steadily in 2020, 2021 and 2022, with only 43 applications for the 66th Academy for the 2022 ETSO, but seem to be making a slight rebound.
The 67th Academy, in 2023, had 293 LETO applications and 101 traditional applications, down 37% and 70%, respectively, compared to the 61st Academy in 2019-2020.
When asked why there is a shortage, Langer responded, “Many issues converge to create the challenge. There are more jobs than workers right now. Similar supply challenges are present in teaching and nursing, for example. Societal pressures with policing are also a factor. An inability to work from home is a challenge.”
Colonel Langer anticipates normal attrition due to retirement over the next five years.
Langer concluded, “We are working as hard as we can to ensure there isn’t a service level drop. Troopers are committed to ensuring traffic safety needs are fulfilled. Creative options like additional overtime are possible. We are hosting two academies each year to try and ensure adequate recruitment numbers.”
Fillmore County Sheriff’s Office
Sheriff John DeGeorge recalls receiving 15 to 20 applicants for police officer openings roughly five years ago. “Our most recent posting received three applicants after extending the deadline,” shared DeGeorge.
The Fillmore County Sheriff’s Office currently operates with 21 full-time and one part-time officer.
Over the next five years, his department anticipates losing at least six deputies to retirement, which is 28% of his department. Looking ahead, DeGeorge explained that 12 of their 21 deputies will be eligible for retirement within the next five years.
While reflecting on why there are fewer people going into law enforcement, DeGeorge stated, “The political climate changed a great deal in regards to law enforcement following the death of George Floyd in 2020. In my conversations with young people picking career paths, it is the main reason most people are avoiding law enforcement as a future career.” He said that most people say that it isn’t worth it. “I have also talked with many officers who were retiring earlier than they had planned, for the same reasons.”
DeGeorge forecasted, “Future staffing for law enforcement is unclear, and as sheriffs and chiefs, we are all very concerned. Shortages exist in many communities across Minnesota already. Luckily we have been able to maintain full-time staffing levels, although we no longer have regular part-time staffing to fill in gaps. Over the last few years, we have changed assignments, and made schedule adjustments to allow us to cover as much time and area as possible with the staff that we have.” He feels that they need to continue to work hard to make the Fillmore County Sheriff’s Office a place that people want to work. They will continue to focus on retention of deputies.
“The law enforcement profession is in a staffing crisis right now, but it is going to get worse over the next several years. There is a large percentage of Minnesota police offers who will be eligible for retirement in the next few years, and enrollment in college programs for law enforcement has plummeted. There simply will not be enough qualified candidates to fill the openings,” added DeGeorge. Minnesota requires a minimum of a two year degree to be POST license eligible. Other states, such as Iowa, will hire an individual, and then send them to school for training to be an officer.
Sheriff DeGeorge concluded, “We are well supported by our community in Fillmore County, and I believe that the majority of communities across the state are the same. I believe that if we are going to attract more candidates, the political sentiment towards law enforcement as a whole needs to change, and due process needs to return for police officers. Pay is increasing at a much higher rate for law enforcement officers than it ever has, due to the shortage of candidates that all agencies are facing. Pay in general for law enforcement will likely have to increase to provide more incentive for young people to take the risks that come with a career as a law enforcement officer.
La Crescent Police Department
The La Crescent Police Department, led by Police Chief Luke Ahlschlager, employs seven full-time POST licensed peace officers. They are typically staffed with eight officers, but they have one full-time position open. They also have three part-time officers who work full-time for other departments.
According to Ahlschlager, they have received very few applicants for job vacancies. Five years ago, they would receive 20 to 30 applications. Ten years ago, they’d receive more than 50.
“Many career fields are experiencing staffing shortages, however law enforcement seems to be suffering particularly badly.” shared Ahlschlager. He cited diminished support, seemingly lower prosecution and conviction rates, and restrictions on our ability to do our jobs as points of concern.
Fortunately for his department, he doesn’t forsee any retirements for at least eight years.
Chief Ahlschlager explained, “There needs to be some sort of incentive to attract new people to the profession. Our wages and hiring bonuses that we offer have not quite been doing the trick. One possible incentive would be lowering the retirement age. I believe if people knew they could retire at age 50 rather than 55 that may attract new people. Speaking solely of La Crescent, if we are unable to fill this position, we will be operating at the bare minimum but we will manage as we have been for many months. Officers will have an increased work load and additional stress but things will work out. If we lose an additional officer, we will be in a substantially more challenging position. Mandatory overtime, flexing hours, and understaffing on shifts would be expected more often than they are currently. We will maintain 24-hour coverage, but at the cost of officer wellness.”
Preston Police Department
Blaise Sass, Police Chief of the Preston Police Department, oversees a department that has contracts with the city of Lanesboro and the city of Fountain, in addition to the city of Preston.
They cover the three communities with three full-time and four part-time officers. They recently hired their third full-time officer, attempting to fill the vacancy since June. Their part-time officers work full-time for other departments, as well.
Historically, they used to receive three or four applications for an open position. Recently, they only received one qualified candidate for the position.
Chief Sass offered his thoughts, “I think the greatest decline in law enforcement officers started in 2020 with the Minneapolis riots stemming from the George Floyd incident, which was then followed by the defund the police movement. I feel that some of the information put out in the national media contributed to creating a very negative ripple effect across the nation towards all law enforcement in general. Some of the young people who had just received their degree in law enforcement ended up taking jobs in jails, prisons and security officer positions or staying out of criminal justice all together, instead of taking the risk of continuing their goal of a career in law enforcement. Their fears were that the profession was too volatile at the time and they would be under constant scrutiny. Since then, high school graduates have just simply found interests in other occupations in the workforce, such as jobs in trades which are always in demand and the pay is very appealing.”
He feels that even if there is a shortage of officers, his department will still continue to strive towards the same level of service citizens have come to know and expect. If shortages persist, Sass said there will be an impact on the type and timeliness of service. Emergency calls will take priority, while other less pressing calls will be addressed based on officer availability.
Sass does not anticipate any officers from his department retiring in the next five years. However, he has noticed a large number of officers retiring, and he anticipates a mass exodus in the years ahead. “With the low volume of enrollment of law enforcement students in colleges across Minnesota, there will most likely be fewer qualified candidates available than open positions,” he explained. Since larger law enforcement agencies can pay higher wages and entice candidates with sign-on bonuses, Sass shared that the recruitment process will be even more challenging.
Sass continued to share, “I think the only way we can attract more applicants to this field would be to start with our leaders and elected officials to change the rhetoric in the national media. There seems to be more attention given to exploiting the few negative encounters with law enforcement in relation to the vast majority of positive interactions with law enforcement that maybe could be commended. There definitely needs to be accountability for those negative encounters and as a profession we need to strive to be the best we can be, but it also needs to be balanced with promoting the noble and valiant efforts officers have put forth with remarkable outcomes. If young people can’t be encouraged to become interested in law enforcement by seeing the appreciation and benefits of taking the risk it will continue to be difficult to attract candidates. We need to recognize the importance of law enforcement and be reminded of the reality without it.”
“One thing I would like to mention and think is important to note is that the people of Southeast Minnesota, in-large, have been great to work with and serve. The citizens in our communities and county have been, for the most part, polite, respectful and supportive through the challenging times. I can personally say that several times a week I have had people come up and say things like ‘Thank you for what you do.’ I think I can speak on behalf of all law enforcement and say, those words truly do mean a lot and we greatly appreciate it,” concluded Chief Sass.
Houston County Sheriff’s Office
For Houston County, Sheriff Brian Swedberg indicated that their department has 15 full-time and one part-timer officer.
Historically, five years ago they’d receive 15 to 20 applications for an open position. This year, they received two applications.
When asked why there’s such a decline in applications, Swedberg shared, “There have been significant changes politically, training, and with statutory requirements following the George Floyd incident in 2020. Also, wages compared to economic inflation, and other businesses offer a comparable or higher wage with better work hours and less stress.”
Over the next five years, Swedberg anticipates losing upwards of three officers to retirement. And, while there is a general concern about a shortage of applicants, he said they will do their “best to serve the residents of Houston County the best” with what they have. According to the sheriff, there is a reality that service to the community could be impacted at some point.