With law enforcement in a workforce crisis, students explain why they aspire to be police

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The 18-year-old doesn’t mind that her chosen profession is in the midst of an image crisis or that the work can be dangerous. Her mother pushed her to consider other professions. But Ziegler, a policeman from Riverland Technical College, is resolute.

“My mother said to me, ‘Can’t you become a nurse?'”

Ziegler is currently the exception to the rule.

Local and national law enforcement is in the midst of a workforce crisis. The shortage is not only reflected in the fall in the number of job seekers. This is also reflected downstream in the decrease in the number of students seeking law enforcement degrees.

Viral videos of police misconduct, like the murder of George Floyd by a Minneapolis cop last year, have damaged law enforcement’s reputation. But the problem predates the Floyd incident.

Madison Ziegler, an Owatonna Police Department reserve officer and law enforcement student at Riverland Community College, shows a group of children her Reserve Officer badge while handing out police badge stickers to Manthey Park on Thursday July 29, 2021 in Owatonna.  Joe Ahlquist / Post Bulletin

Madison Ziegler, an Owatonna Police Department reserve officer and law enforcement student at Riverland Community College, shows a group of children her Reserve Officer badge while handing out police badge stickers to Manthey Park on Thursday July 29, 2021 in Owatonna. Joe Ahlquist / Post Bulletin

Minnesota State Colleges and Universities, the state college system, has seen a decline in the number of law enforcement students over the past eight years – around the time riots broke out in Ferguson, in the Missouri, following the murder of a black man by a white police officer.

Even as the demand for candidates skyrockets, more officers are leaving law enforcement for other careers and others are retiring. Rich Watkins, a Riverland law enforcement instructor, said he receives calls every week from agencies nationwide desperate to find recruits.

Olmsted County Sheriff Kevin Torgerson said he recently attended a regional sheriff’s meeting where everyone was talking about unfilled positions.

“Everyone is scrambling, and the problem is that we don’t have enough applicants. There aren’t enough people coming out of college right now and entering law enforcement.” , Torgerson said.

The question is complicated by the nature of the job: becoming an agent is not like applying to become a store clerk. The hiring of a police officer is long and in several stages. There is a thorough background check. There are several interviews and a pass / fail physical fitness exam. And, at the end of this process, many applicants are dropped.

Madison Ziegler is a reserve officer with the Owatonna Police Department and a law enforcement student at Riverland Community College.  Ziegler is pictured on Thursday July 29, 2021 in Owatonna.  Joe Ahlquist / Post Bulletin

Madison Ziegler is a reserve officer with the Owatonna Police Department and a law enforcement student at Riverland Community College. Ziegler is pictured on Thursday July 29, 2021 in Owatonna. Joe Ahlquist / Post Bulletin

This is why departments like to tap into a large pool of candidates. But this pool has shrunk. Torgerson recalled that when he was tested to become an MP in the mid-1980s, there were as many as 400 people in the room looking for a handful of openings. The last test the department gave, 23 people applied.

The challenge is highlighted anecdotally. Working in law enforcement is often a family affair, but that chain is broken as many officers tell their children to avoid the profession. RCTC law enforcement instructor Vince Scheckel said.

“They don’t encourage their daughters and sons to join the police force,” Scheckel said. “It was a family tradition. But I hear it all the time. It’s kind of disappearing.”

“And it hurts, it hurts everyone,” Torgerson said. “It’s not just a law enforcement problem. It’s a community problem.”

Nallely Vazquez-Perez, a law enforcement student from Riverland, is aware of the debate swirling around police. At one point, Vazquez-Perez shared these negative attitudes towards the police. As a Hispanic, she grew up in a family that saw them in a negative light.

But her anti-police attitude began to change in high school when she befriended law enforcement parents.

“I got to know them. I spent a lot of time with them. It opened my eyes,” Vazquez-Perez said.

Madison Ziegler is a reserve officer with the Owatonna Police Department and a law enforcement student at Riverland Community College.  Ziegler is pictured on Thursday July 29, 2021 in Owatonna.  Joe Ahlquist / Post Bulletin

Madison Ziegler is a reserve officer with the Owatonna Police Department and a law enforcement student at Riverland Community College. Ziegler is pictured on Thursday July 29, 2021 in Owatonna. Joe Ahlquist / Post Bulletin

On a walk with two Minneapolis cops, Vazquez-Perez witnessed how minority cops can make a difference. She was riding with two Latin American police officers in Minneapolis when a call sent them to a family situation where two African American women were arguing and screaming.

Black women did not listen to white officers. But the arrival of the Hispanic officers had a calming influence.

“You could see how the situation has changed,” she said. “You could see they had a lot more confidence in the officers because of their color.”

The need for police officers comes as universities in Minnesota are urged to place more emphasis on anti-racism training and cultural skills. States, including Minnesota, have passed new laws regarding the use of force.

At RCTC, there is more emphasis on teaching law enforcement students de-escalation techniques, said Vince Scheckel, RCTC law enforcement instructor.

“Crisis intervention training is huge right now,” he said.

The focus on crisis response also underscores how much policing has changed. Today, officers are responding to issues outside of their traditional role, according to a Police Executive Research Forum report titled “The Workforce Crisis and What Police Agencies Are Doing About It.”

They respond to incidents involving mental illness, homelessness and drugs. These situations call on a different set of skills, including problem solving, critical thinking, and empathy.

Brett Peine, a student at Winona State University, said he sometimes caught a note of hesitation from friends when he told them about his intention to become a police officer. He thinks the police are already changing. And in his own way, he hopes to contribute to this change.

“I would love to be part of a department that tries new things and does its best to work with the community,” said Peine. “I think this can be a huge step forward.”


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