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Why no one wants to be a cop anymore

“We see a lot of tragedy, and it’s hard and it builds up and it gets in your head,” says St. Paul Deputy Chief Mary Nash.

“We see a lot of tragedy, and it’s hard and it builds up and it gets in your head,” says St. Paul Deputy Chief Mary Nash. Lucy Hawthorne

This “noble profession,” as cops like to call it, is not for everyone. It asks that you bear witness to humanity at its worst, enduring a carnage and cruelty incumbent in no other job.

For Anthony Hines, that became clear on a cold Minneapolis night, when his squad was the first to respond to an accident. Someone blew a red light, rammed another car, then fled into the dark. Left behind were two small children, dead in their car seats.

For Dan Hatten, it was the day his training officer went to a JCPenney on a routine shoplifting call. Suspect Phillip Cole decided murder was an acceptable price to pay for eluding a misdemeanor theft pinch. He pulled a gun and shot officer Mike Hogan point-blank in the head.

“There was some serious reflection on how difficult this job was, and whether it was worth it,” says Hatten.

For Wade Lamirande, it would come on his third day of work. A woman flagged down his squad to report a driver harassing others. Lamirande and his partner pulled the man over. “The guy was suffering from mental issues,” he says.

During the stop, the man reached into his car for a gun. The officers subdued him before he could fire. Afterward, Lamirande considered how something as simple as his uniform nearly led to his murder. “I just thought to myself, ‘This guy has no idea who I am,’ but either he wanted to shoot us, or wanted us to shoot him.”

Sgt. Suwana Kirkland says officers are “out at the beauty salons. We’re out at the playgrounds and gyms” to recruit new officers.

Sgt. Suwana Kirkland says officers are “out at the beauty salons. We’re out at the playgrounds and gyms” to recruit new officers. Lucy Hawthorne

There is no salve for any of this. The job asks that you carry on, never lose your cool, be unerring in your split-second judgments. Nearly every move you make will be recorded by body cam, surveillance footage, or a bystander’s phone. Make a mistake, and assumptions of human fallibility accorded to other jobs will not likely be a courtesy extended to you. Each day offers another chance to lose your income, your freedom, your life with one unexpected move.

“We see a lot of tragedy, and it’s hard and it builds up and it gets in your head,” says Mary Nash, a deputy chief with the St. Paul Police Department. But you keep it to yourself. “You don’t come home and talk about those things because it has a shock and awe value on your family.”

Nash recalls the day two friends were slain. Officer Ron Ryan Jr. was checking on a man asleep in the parking lot of a Dayton’s Bluff church. Guy Harvey Baker was wanted in Iowa for violating probation. So he gunned Ryan down.

Despite having the day off, officer Tim Jones joined the hunt. Three hours later, Baker was hiding in a fishing shack as Jones approached with a K-9. Both cop and dog were shot and killed.

“That was the end of our innocence,” says Nash. “It shook us. We knew we weren’t invincible anymore.”

No, this job is not for everyone.

Nobility in retreat

The word “crisis” is being bandied about in cop world these days. Minnesota is suffering a statewide officer shortage, and no one seems quite sure of the remedy.

When Minneapolis Lt. Bob Kroll entered the noble profession 30 years ago, it wasn’t uncommon to see 1,000 applicants take the entrance exam. Today, that number hews closer to 200.

In St. Paul, the number of applicants has fallen by 50 percent in just the past decade. Some departments in the Minnesota countryside are witnessing dives of 75 percent.

If nobility is still to be had, not everyone can see it.

The natural whittling process further carves the pool, as candidates depart due to failed background checks, pregnancy, or landing more immediate work. By the time it’s over, “all these departments are fighting for these students,” says Lamirande, former chief of the Cloquet Police Department who now runs the Fond du Lac Tribal and Community College law enforcement program. “We’re at the first time ever that we’re at 100 percent placement.”

Much of the problem is self-inflicted. Cops describe countless good deeds in their daily routine—helping women flee violent relationships, rescuing kids from unloving homes. But these acts are instantly erased by a single bad shooting or violent arrest, the footage roaring across TV screens and Facebook feeds, sowing distrust and disdain with the power of a multimillion-dollar ad campaign.

Since most people rarely interact with police, this is their lasting impression.

Then come the damning stats: The disproportionate number of black men felled in police encounters, the ugly black-white ratios for traffic stops and minor busts for things like weed.

Over the past 20 years, Minneapolis’ population has grown by 60,000, though there are 30 fewer officers to serve them, says. Lt. Bob Kroll.

Over the past 20 years, Minneapolis’ population has grown by 60,000, though there are 30 fewer officers to serve them, says. Lt. Bob Kroll.

“At times we do a very bad job in teaching our officers how to interact with communities of color,” concedes John Lozoya, a senior commander with the St. Paul Police Department.

To the young, the new to this country, and people of color, the police often seem less helpful servant than occupying army.

“Any time there’s anything negative that happens in law enforcement, they don’t see the color of the uniform,” says Sgt. Suwana Kirkland of the Ramsey County Sheriff’s office. “They see law enforcement as a whole. If one person does something in one part of the state, that affects everyone in law enforcement.”

Herein lies the rub. There are nearly 10,000 cops in Minnesota. Only the tiniest fraction is involved in cases of high-profile violence. And if police can be accused of profiling, so can their critics, who tend to paint all 10,000 with a one-size-fits-all malignance. Few occupations make for a more convenient punching bag.

Nor has the body politic done them any favors.

Over the past 20 years, Minneapolis’ population has grown by 60,000, though there are 30 fewer officers to serve them, says Kroll. Throw in an expanded workforce arriving from the suburbs and a nightlife scene brimming like never before, and police are stretched as thin as they’ve ever been, leaving scant time for the personal interaction between cop and community that leads both to believe they play for the same team.

“When I was younger, you always saw an officer in the neighborhood,” says Anthony Hines, the Minnesota chapter president of the Black Police Officers Association, and a former Minneapolis cop who’s now a captain with Metro Transit. “That closeness to the community has dissolved over the years.”

Meanwhile, mental crisis calls in places like Bloomington have doubled. Yet cops, like teachers, are left to deal with the wreckage of broken families, poverty, and addiction.
They’re expected to bring cures to what the rest of society cannot.

“Can you imagine never losing your temper or never making a mistake?” asks Lamirande. “And almost everything in your day is recorded?”

So it’s no wonder calls to the noble profession are going unheeded. It requires working nights, weekends, and holidays. Make the wrong instantaneous call, and video of your error will be played and replayed for a statewide audience, critiqued by keyboard pundits certain they would have done better.

You may be taunted at arrest scenes. Called a racist in the newspaper. Meanwhile, you’ll get little credit for facing the ever-present danger your critics would never dare to confront.

“I remember going up staircases when someone was suicidal with a rifle,” says Lamirande. “And the stairs are creaking and there’s no place for cover. And I’m thinking, ‘Why am I doing this?’”

The enemy comes courting

T

his can be a solid job, financially speaking. The starting wage for a Minneapolis patrolman is $65,000, rising to $94,000 at the top of the scale—even higher if you move up the ranks.

The job also comes with union health care and that most blessed of forgotten treasures—a pension—allowing you to retire in your 50s.

You’re among the few workers shielded from predatory capitalism. You will never be whacked to pump third-quarter earnings. Your job will not be shipped to Hanoi.

For generations, this security was enough to fill the ranks, fed by military and police families who valued a durable livelihood. Officers tended to be white and male, more conservative than most. They bred early, worked second jobs, and gobbled overtime to pay for Catholic school. They were the quintessential family men of old.

Yet Minnesota changed. The police did not.

In the Twin Cities, liberals began to see them as boorish and prone to thuggery. Black residents’ fear of the cops grew more pronounced with each viral video. To immigrants who fled barbarity, the uniform had always spelled danger, an instinct not easily dismantled.

Who wants a job where you’re reflexively seen as the enemy?

Police were caught flat-footed. They’d long enjoyed a river of applicants, and did little to change as it turned to a creek. “I don’t think law enforcement has done a very good job of advertising itself, if you look at the recruiting the U.S military has done,” says Dan Hatten, chief of the Hutchinson Police Department.

The shortage even stretched to small-town Minnesota. In Hutchinson, a town of 13,895 on the western plains, people still admire their cops. “When some of the media was at its worst about negative stories about police officers, this community rallied,” says Hatten.

Residents offer atta-boys at stores, send food to police headquarters. “I just can’t imagine how the relationship can get better.”

Still, Hatten’s officers keep leaving. In this new buyer’s market, cops depart for bigger towns with better amenities, heavier workloads, more challenging cases. It’s not about the money, says Hatten. “I have yet to have any of my officers leaving say, ‘Chief, I just need more pay.’ But we know we can’t begin to compete with these large communities.”

So Minnesota is hoping to replenish the ranks. Nowhere is that more evident than in St. Paul.

This is Minnesota’s most diverse city. Ethnic minorities make up nearly 60 percent of the population, some 20 points above Minneapolis. One in every five residents is foreign-born. So St. Paul has set out to build a force that better reflects its citizenry, courting people who rarely considered life in law enforcement.

For Deputy Chief Mary Nash, it means recruiting women, who now compose just 11 percent of the roster. That requires breaking through a fear that “I might think I’m too small, or might not want to go into that hot call,” says Nash. “You’re not big enough. You’re not strong enough.”

But St. Paul foresees a different kind of police department, one where brains and heart are more prized than brawn, since you’re far more likely to encounter a mental health emergency than bank robbers with guns drawn.

In reality, says Senior Commander John Lozoya, the job is “10 percent warrior mentality, 90 percent making it safer.”

That’s led female officers in the east metro to recruit in traditionally unexpected places. “We’re out in the beauty salons. We’re at the playgrounds and in the gyms,” says Kirkland, vice president of the state’s Black Police Officers Association.

Yet if women remain a tough sell, people of color are even more so. After the recent retirement of Sgt. Valarie Namen, St. Paul doesn’t have a single black woman on the force.

Even the most promising black recruit can encounter polar forces, says Lamirande. On one side is a stable, fulfilling career. On the other may be husbands and wives, boyfriends and girlfriends unfurling cautionary flags about joining the enemy.

“Especially people of color, they’re just really reluctant to make that jump,” he says. “I’ve had black students feel as if they’re almost going against their race. They’ll get called out, ‘How can you go against your race?’”

Lozoya knows that jump well. He grew up in Denver in a family of migrant workers. His only interaction with police came when “they were coming to arrest my uncle or something.”

He traveled the Midwest from a young age, hoeing beets and picking tomatoes. Rural sheriffs would show up at migrant camps, warning them not to stay in town past 5 p.m.

“I really didn’t have good experiences with law enforcement.”

That would change at age 14. In a moment of adolescent stupidity, he drilled a Denver cop in the face with a snowball.

“That officer stayed in contact with me ’til I graduated from high school,” Lozoya says. “He would always come around to the neighborhood, attended some of my high school activities. He changed my view of law enforcement.”

These days, Lozoya’s an apostle of similar stripe. He oversees St. Paul’s Career Path Academy, which seeks to bridge the divide between police and people of color.

It’s not just lingering animus that separates the two. To become a cop in Minnesota means getting a two-year degree that can run up to $8,000. Then comes the skills program, which offers training in handcuffing techniques, driving, use of force and the like. It, too, can cost up to $8,000.

To the broke, such debt can seem an unscalable peak—especially if you’re already floundering to fund basics like rent, transport, and day care.

So St. Paul got a grant from AmeriCorps, a federal agency built to foster civic engagement. In exchange for a load of public service, students get schooling at Century College, plus help with housing and insurance.

“We had to address all those barriers for folks in poverty so the student, all they did is have to go to school,” says Lozoya. “This career takes you out of poverty.”

The first class had 190 applicants. They would eventually be whittled to just 25. Some found other jobs. Some struggled with college. Some couldn’t see the luster in cop life.

Though Lozoya hoped that number would be higher, it’s not easy to join the ranks, nor should it be. Asked to sell his career, the commander refuses.

“I can’t sell you on the job. It’s a calling. I have to see what your character is first. We’re looking for people who volunteer, looking at what you do for your community, how you treat your family. We should not hire good police officers. We should hire good people and train them to be police officers.”

St. Paul is now in its fourth class. It will keep looking.

Tenderness on the job

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espite all the controversy and criticism, this remains work of uncommon reward.

For Suwana Kirkland, it comes in those small moments of tenderness, like the time a mother was taken to the Ramsey County Jail, young children in tow. As they waited for relatives to show, officers fetched the kids McDonald’s. A hardened day broke with an intrusion of joy. “They were laughing and smiling and having lunch together.”

For Dan Hatten, the treasures are “too many to count. It’s the small little things where you’re just able to provide some assistance or service.”

He used to be an accident investigator, charged with informing families of death. Most cops find this a soul-blistering duty. Not Hatten. “There was some satisfaction helping them reach some conclusion in their most desperate times.”

Mary Nash’s fondest moment came at a restaurant. Months earlier, she’d aided a woman during a domestic call. The woman approached her table, telling Nash she’d freed herself from an abusive relationship. “You helped me, and my life changed because of that,” she said.

Lozoya’s tale is much the same. A young mother was being beaten by her husband. He got her out of the home and into a shelter, where her husband couldn’t find her.

“It reminded me of my own situation,” he says. “When I was young, I couldn’t help my mom. I couldn’t do anything.”

Kroll firmly believes most people back the police, “but they’re not the ones who get the microphone.”

Yet even “some of our biggest naysayers could be converted if they went through these shoot-don’t shoot scenarios.” To viscerally experience that split-second call means standing in the shoes of your nemesis, without the benefit of instant replay.

In the meantime, the cops soldier on, hoping to create Law Enforcement 2.0: The Kinder, Gentler Edition.

For Wade Lamirande, that means continuing to weed out the meatheads. “I tell them right out: If you’re here to exert your will, and want to have power and authority over people, you’re not going to do well.”

For Anthony Hines, it means changing the vibe of old. “We need to let people know we have a culture of acceptance, let them know they’re coming into an inclusive culture.”

For Mary Nash, it means every call is a chance to burnish a department’s reputation, to turn foe to friend. “A good portion of what we do is helping people in the crisis of the moment, whether it’s a domestic or a burglary or some sort of shooting in their neighborhood.

“We are coming into people’s lives in a crisis and bringing some calm to the chaos. It may be the only time in their lives that they have with law enforcement, and they’ll remember that for the rest of their lives.”