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Pension changes could result in mass exodus of Minnesota police

Outside the Law Enforcement Center. Justin Glawe | Bemidji Pioneer

BEMIDJI -- The nightmare scenario is this: On May 31, 2014, more than 1,000 police officers, sheriff's deputies and other law enforcement personnel across Minnesota will retire.

It's remote, Beltrami County Sheriff Phil Hodapp said, but it's possible.

"Sometime in the next 11 months we're going to have a never-before-seen migration of officers who are going to retire," he said.

That one-day migration could take place because of changes to the public employee retirement system made during the recent state legislative session, and officers will hopefully give warning to local governments of their plans to retire.

"You have to, as a city or a county government, reach out to your personnel," said Jim Franklin, executive director of the Minnesota Sheriff's Association. "If they know they are going to be retiring, there's nothing wrong with them giving a letter and saying 'I'm going to leave in May or June.'"

The changes, listed in detail on the Public Employee Retirement Association's (PERA) website, are many and varied. Most notable among them is an increase in pension reductions for those who choose early retirement.

Here's how it breaks down: If you're a cop currently between the ages of 50 and 55, you can retire before July 1, 2014 and incur only a 1.2 percent annual reduction in benefits for retiring early. After that date, however, the reduction increases, eventually to 5 percent annually by 2019. And the longer employees stay, the greater chance they have of increasing their pay through raises. Since pensions are based on a percentage of an employee's "high five" -- an average of their five highest annual salaries -- some may opt to stay on until May 31, 2014, the last day before the increase in reduced benefits for early retirement takes effect.

A statewide number of 10,500 cops could drop to 9,500 in a single day, making May 31, 2014 a possible big day for retirement parties.

"It's kind of hard to know exactly where that number is going to be," Franklin said, adding estimates range from 1,000 to 1,600 police in Minnesota falling in the 50-55 category. "They could wait until the last minute."

Changes Coming

The effects of a mass retirement run the gamut from leftover police working longer hours, less experienced cops on the street, or just fewer cops, and, according to Hodapp, a loss of institutional knowledge.

"The real concern is the effect on public safety -- our ability to provide a good service to the citizens," Hodapp said. "We need to be proactive so we're not caught flat-footed."

At their most recent meeting, the Beltrami County Board of Commissioners approved a motion that will streamline the hiring process for entry-level positions in the Beltrami County Sheriff's Office, Hodapp said. Now, when positions become available, new-hires can be approved by county administrator Kay Mack. Prior to the change, new-hires would be recommended by Hodapp or Chief Deputy Ernie Beitel before being added to the next week's consent agenda. The process sometimes took up to three weeks.

The new system is similar to the hiring process for the Bemidji Police Department, where new-hires are approved by city manager John Chattin. Chief of police Mike Mastin said he's aware of the changes coming to PERA, and that while he has two officers who fall into the 50-55 category, isn't expecting a mass retirement of Bemidji police. In fact, Mastin has already seen it: He's hired 12 officers in the last 20 months partly as a result of retirements.

"We came to the position we were in not because of the changes in PERA, but because of the age of our supervisory staff and the economy," he said. In 2011, with a slightly better economy than in 2008 when five command staff officers became eligible for early retirement, Mastin oversaw an exodus of experienced cops, and an influx of new ones. "That's kind of where all of Minnesota is right now, and because of the change in PERA, that could be the nudge to get (older officers) to retire."

Mastin expressed support for the county board's changes to the hiring process for Hodapp's agency, citing the competitive nature of job openings he's seen in his time as police chief.

"The process needs to be streamlined because job openings happen quick and there's going to be a lot of them," he said. "If your process isn't streamlined to pick up (the best possible) candidates you're going to be a training ground."

With 10,500 licensed peace officers statewide, according to the Minnesota Board of Police Officers Safety and Training, an estimated 10 percent of whom will qualify for early retirement this year, the "training ground" could be the entire state. Hodapp said the time it takes to hire and train a new sheriff's deputy is only the first step in creating an effective cop.

"You're talking six months (after a new-hire is approved) before you have a newly minted police officer hitting the streets," Hodapp said. "A senior officer then has to spend a great deal of extra time on the training of the new officer, and it takes them 2-3 years to really develop into a good street cop."

While there currently aren't any Beltrami County deputies who are eligible for early retirement, Hodapp's concerns lie in surrounding counties. Job openings in Hubbard or Cass counties, or nearby police departments, for example, would be attractive to entry-level jailers and bailiffs on Hodapp's force.

"If you're a young person who's working in the jail as a corrections officer, and you went to college wanting to be a cop and a job came open at a neighboring county, you're probably going to take it," he said.

The Oil Patch

In North Dakota, where populations and crime rates have soared ever-higher alongside the oil pumps that brought them, many Minnesotans have taken jobs in law enforcement.

According to "Policing the Patch: An Examination of the Impact of the Oil Boom on Small Town Policing and Crime in Western North Dakota," a study released in August by the Department of Criminal Justice and Political Science at North Dakota State University, the majority of the state's police hail from the land of 10,000 lakes. More than half -- 65 percent -- of North Dakota's cops come from Minnesota, the study found.

Capt. Verlan Kvande, of the Williams County (N.D.) Sheriff's Office, said seven of the 24 deputies there are from Minnesota. When reached by phone Tuesday afternoon, he sounded busy, as most police officers in the western portion of the state are.

Kvande said his office took 270 criminal reports in 2009, compared with 1,100 last year and an expected 1,500 by the end of 2013. The jumping numbers are similar in Williston, N.D., the seat of Williams County. The police department there received 5,552 calls for service in 2008, according to the study. In 2011, that number was 15,954.

Kvande has no shortage of work or applicants. The problem, he said, lies in licensure requirements. Essentially, if you're licensed to be a full-time peace officer in Minnesota, little additional training is required to don a North Dakota badge. But for men and women from other states trying to fight crime in oil country that's not the case.

"I've got applicants from across the country -- Alaska, Pennsylvania, Arizona, Florida, Detroit," Kvande said. "The challenge we have is that North Dakota has reciprocity with Minnesota for training requirements, but if we bring someone from outside the area, it's a little bit more involved."

What would be a two-week training program for a licensed officer from Minnesota is an 11-week escapade for an cop from outside the two states.

"Logistically there's just no way we can hire a body and send them to school for that long," Kvande said. "Two weeks, no big deal; 11 weeks is a whole different ballgame."

On the Horizon

Other than getting advance notice from officers who plan on retiring, there isn't much law enforcement agencies can do to prepare for looming vacancies. Tight budgets across the state -- part of the reason so many Minnesota cops are now working in North Dakota, Kvande said -- also prevent police from creating new positions in preparation for officers leaving current ones.

"Essentially, you have to wait until someone goes until you can hire another person," Hodapp said. "I just think this is one of those unforeseen things that just comes along."

Franklin, Mastin and Hodapp all expressed support for the changes made to the pension system, but said law enforcement, along with city and county governments, needs to be proactive in the coming year.

"I really think that in the long-run it will keep well-qualified people in the service of law enforcement longer," Franklin said. "That's a positive thing for the community."

As for those who might be leaving this year, Mastin said it would result in younger command staff who, while perhaps lacking in experience, might rejuvenate investigative units filled with Baby Boomers.

"To me, having gone through (several retirements) already, it's exciting to me because it's an opportunity," he said. "Sometimes it takes a fresh pair of eyes."

Kvande said there's a "substantial amount" of applicants coming out of Minnesota, and according to Hodapp the state has always fielded strong candidates for law enforcement jobs across the country. The trick now lies in preparing for the nightmare scenario, and the lack of police on the street that might come with it.

"We know it's on the horizon," he said. "We just need to be aware of it and be prepared for it."

Justin Glawe
Reporting on crime, courts and Beltrami county government. Follow me on Twitter @JustinGlawe.
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