Forest Lake considers cutting its police department

Cutting the local police force in a town the size of Forest Lake would be unprecedented.

Cutting the local police force in a town the size of Forest Lake would be unprecedented. Forest Lake Police Department

The $22 million Forest Lake City Center opened for business in December 2014.

The new building consolidated under one roof, housing police, fire, public works, and city hall administrative operations. Economic efficiency and outdated, cramped facilities were the reasons for the new digs, especially in the case of the police department.

“There was nowhere else to go,” Police Chief Rick Peterson told the Pioneer Press at the time. “We’re going from a two-squad car garage to a garage that will fit 18."

Peterson also liked the new "detention facility," which replaced a two-story set-up which saw cops shepherding inmates up a flight of stairs and into "a hallway with two rooms." The new facility is "safe and secure," he said, "not only for the officer, but also for the detainee."

Despite the new investment in local law enforcement, the city of Forest Lake (population roughly 20,000) might now be looking to get rid of the local police department altogether.

The city is mulling over a proposal from the Washington County Sheriff's Office. It's presented a plan to provide all law enforcement services to Forest Lake, from patrols to drug interdiction. If approved by the city council, Forest Lake's police department would be disbanded.   

Mayor Ben Winnick is among those who now want to dissolve the Forest Lake Police Department.

"This isn't just about economics, although that's part of it," Winnick tells City Pages. "It's about overall public safety. The sheriff would provide three extra officers on patrol, a narcotics task force, fraud unit, and water patrol — things we don't have.

"We're considering the proposal because we're looking at all of these as well as the department's viability for the future. Our current levels of spending are unsustainable."

According to Winnick, "public safety" accounts for "56 percent" of the city budget, which this year is just shy of $10 million. A contract with the sheriff's office would save Forest Lake around $300,000 annually.

Such a move for a city the size of Forest Lake, pop. 20,000, would be unprecedented, says Joe Sheeran of the Minnesota Chiefs of Police Association. Smaller municipalities like Newport have disbanded its police force in favor of contracting with the sheriff, but not a growing suburb like Forest Lake.    

The Forest Lake department consists of 23 full-time officers, tasked with keeping the peace across 36 square miles. The county proposal would assign 25 sworn officers to the city. 

Winnick, a former city council member who was elected mayor last year, told KSTP-TV contracting with the county sheriff's office will mean "more overall police coverage in the big picture, which makes it safer and more financially efficient for the citizens of a city that is growing very fast."

The timing of the push to disband the department is peculiar.

As a city council member, Winnick had voted to eliminate a full-time police officer position in 2015. Last year, as Winnick made his bid for the mayor's office, opponents used that vote to criticize his campaign. This led to an episode what would locally become known as "Signgate."

Forest Lake resident Michael LaFave posted signs reading, “Winnick voted to lay off police” in and around town last September. Then those signs disappeared. LaFave then ordered 50 professionally printed signs with the same message. He started posting the replacement one weekend in October. That's when he encountered Winnick walking toward one of LaFave's signs.

The exchange was caught on video.

“Taking my signs?” LaFave asks in the video.

“Oh, I didn’t know they were your signs,” Winnick responds.

LaFave asks again if Winnick is taking his campaign signs.

"No," says Winnick.

The episode only exacerbated strained relations between Winnick and the local police. Due to the potential for conflict of interest, the Forest Lake department did not investigate Winnick's involvement in the disappearance of signs; instead, police forwarded the case to the county sheriff's department.

When asked if the present proposal to eliminate the police department has anything to do with past political axes to grind, Winnick says, "That's a loaded question and I'm not going to answer it. I'm looking at [the proposal] to determine what's the best service for the city, and there's certainly an emotional aspect to it."