BEMIDJI-For one reason or another, there aren't as many people who want to work in law enforcement as there once were.
Along with agencies across the country, the Bemidji Police Department, the Beltrami County Sheriff's Office, and even the Minnesota State Patrol have seen the number of applicants for their various positions decrease over recent years. Authorities on the subject say there are multiple possible causes for the decline, ranging from candidates going into the private field to them not wanting to deal with the increased scrutiny that law enforcement has seen.
"The reason for the downturn is multifaceted and can't be (attributed) to any one factor," said Sgt. Azzahya Shevlin of the Minnesota State Patrol. "The decrease in law enforcement applicants is something that has been a focus of conversation amongst Minnesota law enforcement agencies for the last few years and is consistent with national trends."
The Minnesota Board of Peace Officer Standards and Training is the governing body that licenses officers in the state. During the 2018 fiscal year, that organization administered its lowest number of exams to prospective officers since 1999. Similarly, the State Patrol had about half the number of applicants in 2018 that it had five to seven years prior. It had an even lower number in 2016.
On the local level, Beltrami Chief Deputy Ernie Beitel said applicants have dropped across all areas in the sheriff's office, from the deputies who patrol the highways to the dispatchers who guide them around, to the correction officers who book and handle inmates.
Bemidji Police Chief Mike Mastin said he's seen those numbers reflected in his department as well. He said there were more than 100 applicants for a single position in the department when he began in 1999. He said those strong numbers, at least for the local department, continued up into the mid-2000s. As recently as May, however, there were less than 20 applicants for two open positions.
He said, to some degree, that may be a good thing. However, he added it also may have gone beyond the initial benefit.
"I think when scrutiny of law enforcement began to increase, the number of applicants started to decrease," Mastin said. "Initially, the decrease may have been a good thing... I think people entering this position should realize there's a certain amount of scrutiny and expectations that are associated with professional behavior in this profession. But I think, as this has relentlessly continued, I think we're now to the point where we're detering the people who really should be police officers."
Beitel reiterated that the problem is, at least in part, due to the heightened negative attention that law enforcement has received in recent years.
Criminal justice programs still strong
While law enforcement overall may have a public relations challenge, there are other causes attributed to the decline in law enforcement applicants. One is that people are looking for different kinds of jobs than they once were.
For example, several sources referred to the fact that people are gravitating toward jobs where they have more control over their work environments, and that more potential employees are going into newer, developing fields, such as the technology industry.
"It is something I'm concerned about though because it could be a perfect storm of historically low unemployment, a different culture of people coming and what they're interests are, and then intense scrutiny on any and all law enforcement decisions," said Nathan Gove, executive director of Minnesota Peace Officer Standards and Training.
In spite of the difficulty law enforcement agencies are experiencing, there's still a steady pipeline of upcoming talent. In fact, the BSU criminal justice department has a robust program that has doubled in the past three years. It's not just BSU either. Gove said other universities also have reported relatively steady enrollment in criminal justice programs.
And at least a group of those students have had their sights set on a law enforcement career for years. BSU senior Andrew Beste said he sees the career choice as a calling rather than as a convenient job opportunity. Collin Palm is another BSU criminal justice senior who also says he's not dissuaded from the career choice by all the negative attention. Rather, they both say it is something that has given them even more drive to succeed.
"It made me want to be better-better informed, better at understanding people," Palm said. "I think that was what it did for me more than scare me away from it. It was more of a motivation thing."
There are at least a couple explanations for the discrepancies between the robust class sizes and the number of people showing up to actually get certified as law enforcement officers in Minnesota. One reason is that some students use their criminal justice degrees in the private market, working in areas such as security, which typically can promise higher-paying positions than those that are government funded.
There's also out-of-state competition. According to multiple sources on the subject, Minnesota has a high standard for its law enforcement officers. BSU professor Michael Herbert said Minnesota is the only state in the country that requires a college degree to become licensed.
Because of those standards, Minnesota applicants are seen as prime candidates elsewhere. In fact, the city of Madison, Wis., has a presence every year in Bemidji to recruit BSU criminal justice students.
Just as there's no single reason for why the number of applicants for law enforcement positions has decreased, those who work in the field say there's no one solution to the problem either.
"This isn't just one way to attract and retain people; you have to go at it from all angles," Beitel said.
He said one of those ways is to maintain a strong relationship with BSU along with having a presence at job fairs.
Mastin said the Bemidji Police Department tries to undertake about 1,000 community-relation activities a year. That may mean hosting events, such as Coffee With a Cop, or visiting school children in the classroom. While their events are not always necessarily targeted toward possible recruits, Mastin said they help improve the overall relationship between the department and the community.
Shevlin said the state patrol uses both "traditional and non-traditional recruitment strategies."
"I think departments are going to have to work harder to attract people to their particular agencies, and that's going to be a combination of working conditions, pay, benefits, etcetera," Gove said.