House Majority Leader Ryan Winkler and several Democratic colleagues announced legislation Monday that would create an expedited police training program for people with “strong moral character” to address a statewide shortage of cops.
Winkler — who is running for Hennepin County attorney, who directs the state’s largest collection of prosecutors — defined “strong moral character” as more than just integrity and honesty, but also acting according to a code of ethics, possessing cultural competency and a service mindset . Winkler said candidates would be better screened for those qualities on the front end, and then go through an accelerated training program.
Election-year politics are in play: Amid a rise in crime in some areas and relentless Republicans attacks that they soft on crime, Democrats around the country are distancing themselves from the defund/abolish police rhetoric pushed by progressive since the police murder of George Floyd.
And, on this proposal, Democrats are divided: A key DFL lawmaker on criminal justice issues said he was out of the loop and offered reservations.
Rep. Carlos Mariani, DFL-St. Paul, who chairs the House Public Safety and Criminal Justice Reform Committee, said the bill has merit but is inadequate. He said it was “perplexing” that nobody pushing the bill has talked to him about it.
“I only happen to be the public safety committee chair,” he said. Apparently it’s OK to work with individual legislators but not the chair of the public safety committee. It just doesn’t smell right.”
The bill would spend $13 million to create the training program, $2.6 million on a college scholarship program and $800,000 for community outreach. The program would produce about 250 peace officers annually, Winkler said.
With a focus on people in underrepresented groups, the program would offer free tuition and a stipend for living expenses, job placement assistance, student loan forgiveness, a signing bonus and a retention bonus after 18 months of service. Participants would have to keep working as a peace officer in Minnesota six years after completing the scholarship program or repay theirs and stipends.
Winkler said the bill is the result of conversations he’s had with police chiefs and sheriffs who want to recruit officers who reflect their communities and are committed to public service.
“The reality is, there aren’t very many people to hire. It’s not a question of having funding,” Winkler said. “A lot of communities are offering retention bonuses, hiring bonuses. Salaries are competitive, but money alone will not solve the problem.”
The usual pipelines to policing have dwindled as the nation has suffered through a pandemic, the Great Resignation and heated debates over police reform in the wake of police brutality cases.
Department of Public Safety Assistant Commissioner Booker Hodges said 25% of Minnesota law enforcement agencies are looking for officers, with a shortage of about 1,500 officers. The state churns out 536 officers annually, so it will take three years to fill those vacancies, not counting the 5 to 10% of cops near retirement age.
Just 4% of Minnesota peace officers are people of color, Hodges said, so the bill offers the opportunity for “generational change.”
Bill cosponsor Rep. Heather Edelson, DFL-Edina, said suburban law enforcement agencies have been struggling to recruit and retain cops.
“This bill really does seek to go in and find the people that are maybe looking to switch careers that are interested in law enforcement,” she said.
Rep. Dan Wolgamott, DFL-St. Cloud, said the “dire” staffing shortages are posing a direct threat to communities’ safety, not just in the Twin Cities but across the state.
“Especially considering that we have a historic budget surplus, now is the time to invest in the next generation of peace and police officers,” he said.
Rep. Kaohly Her, DFL-St. Paul, said when she went to the civilian police academy in St. Paul, she saw barriers that prevent people from marginalized communities from going into law enforcement. Minnesota has one of the highest education standards for officers, but that makes it more difficult for first-generation college-goers, or someone who can’t afford the cost, she said.
“That literally prices huge portions of the community from participating in the privilege of choosing to serve and protect,” Her said.
Winkler said the proposal was developed in consultation with the Minnesota Sheriff’s Association, Minnesota Chiefs of Police Association and Minnesota Department of Public Safety.
Mariani said those groups may be working with Winkler because they’re trying to avoid his more robust criminal justice — and especially policing — reform agenda.
Mariani said while he reached out to the law enforcement community months ago about his committee’s multi-dimensional approach to police reform, he doesn’t have a meeting with them until March. He suggested perhaps they don’t want to talk about accountability.
“I fear that by doing this, we don’t do all the much more difficult and immediate things we need to do,” Mariani said.
The bill’s first public hearing is scheduled for Tuesday in the House Higher Education Committee.