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New Bemidji Police Chief Mike Mastin takes helm

Mike Mastin, who has been with the Bemidji Police Department for 10 years, has been named the chief of the department following the retirement of Gerald Johnson at the end of September.Mastin has been serving as interim chief for the past two months. Pioneer Photo/Monte Draper

After spending the past two months as Bemidji's interim police chief, Mike Mastin will be sworn into the job permanently during a ceremony today.

Mastin has been serving as the interim chief since former chief Gerald Johnson retired at the end of September.

"By all accounts he has done an outstanding job," City Manager said of Mastin's performance as interim chief.

Mastin, 36, will be sworn in as chief of police at 4 p.m. in the Council Chambers at City Hall. He will now, officially, take over a department that is in transition.

In the last year, the department has marked the retirements of four longtime employees: Sgt. John Sorensen (31 years) last December, Capt. Bob Lehmann (29 years) in March, Johnson (32 years) in September, and Sgt. Les Plasschaert (30 years) in October.

"That's 120 years of law enforcement experience that walked out the door in the last 12 months," Mastin said, adding he's been listening to officers and receiving ideas for improving the department.

"A little more thinking outside the box," he said. "That's been the most fun part, having the guys come up with ideas."

The department is more open to change, particularly technology, due to officers' age, he noted.

"We are a very young, youthful department," Mastin said.

One challenge facing Mastin is manpower. The department already was down two positions, but with the retirements, the department is sitting at 26 officers instead of 31. Add in some family leaves and it was not unusual for the department to recently be operating with 25 officers.

While two officers will be hired soon, Mastin said training requirements and timelines, and another potential retirement next spring, the police force may not be at full staff until next fall.

But that, too, offers advantages, he said, as he can weigh personalities and skill sets in hiring new employees.

"I can get the best officers for the direction I want to go," he said.

That new direction will be more community-based, Mastin said, as officers should be more involved with the community; he also wants the public to be made more aware of policing activities

"A little more proactive, a little more community-involved," he said.

After obtaining a two-year degree from Vermillion Community College in 1996, Mastin, who is from Detroit Lakes, worked with the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources and as a police officer in Cass Lake.

His wife, Amy, came here to get a degree in education from Bemidji State University. Mastin himself decided to get a four-year degree in criminal justice.

At the time, he also considered a career change.

"I started to think about law school," he said. "I did my internship with the county attorney's office and realized that it was not exactly what I wanted to do."

He was hired by Bemidji as a patrol officer in April 2000, one month before he graduated BSU.

In 2003, he was promoted to auto theft investigator, a position he held for four years.

"We made significance strides," he said, noting prosecutions increased 61 percent.

The work allowed him to see an investigation through from beginning to end, while teaching him that when investigators are more casual, the interview is less adversarial and they reveal more information, he said.

In 2007, Mastin was promoted to night sergeant.

For four years he worked 6 p.m. to 5 a.m. As compared to day shifts, which have investigators, school resource officers, a chief, captain and sergeants all on duty, the night shift consists of one sergeant and five patrol officers.

That work, Mastin said, gave him leadership experience with minimal resources.

It also showed him how to rely on his acquired knowledge. For instance, when officers find an intoxicated male outside at 3 a.m. when it's 15 degrees, you need to send him somewhere even though Bemidji doesn't have a detox center.

"You really rely on your experience," he said.

Meanwhile, in addition regular duties, Mastin served on the SWAT team for 10 years. He joined the team in 2001 and was named one of two team leaders in 2006. He turned in his SWAT gear this week.

This year has undeniably been a year of change for Mastin.

In January he was promoted to day sergeant.

Nighttime is when the action happens and daytime is when the reporting begins, Mastin said, relaying a common saying among police officers.

It can be a bit of a slower pace, Mastin said, but officers learn different skills.

"It's just a different type of work environment," Mastin said of day shifts.

Sergeants are also patrol officers; they respond to calls as needed and have specific tasks assigned to them, such as one overseeing the firearm program or vehicle fleet.

"They have their own unique responsibilities, but they all also manage the coverage on the roads and make sure calls are getting answered," he said.

In April, Mastin was named captain.

Whereas the chief is the face of the department and attends the meetings and speaks on behalf of the department, the captain is the doer, so to speak, Mastin said. For instance, the chief secures a grant but hands it over to the captain to put it in action.

Further, the captain manages the five sergeants and makes sure the work is getting done.

When he took the captain's position, Mastin said, he knew he was likely putting himself in a position to become police chief. While no one knew for certain Johnson was retiring, they knew he had 32 years in with the department.

Officers figured that whoever became captain would likely become the next police chief, Mastin said.

He was notified about five days before Johnson retired that he would be the interim chief.

Undoubtedly, he said, the first question people ask him when they meet him is, "Aren't you a little young to be chief?"

At 36, Mastin is younger than some police chiefs, but he also probably looks even younger than his age.

Age came up during a conversation with Johnson before he accepted the captain's position, Mastin said, recalling how he didn't want to take the job if he wouldn't be taken seriously.

"I told him, 'I know I can do this job,"' he said. "'I've succeeded at every job I've had. I'm a hard worker.'"

Johnson said the police chief in Duluth, which has a larger department than Bemidji's, was 36 when he became chief.

"There are a lot of chiefs around Minnesota that are my age," Mastin said.

Mastin lives near Lake George with his wife, Amy, and their two daughters.