ROCHESTER, Minn. — For as far back as grade school, Madison Ziegler has felt a calling to become a police officer.

It doesn't bother the 18-year-old that her chosen profession is in the midst of an image crisis or that the work can be dangerous. Her mom has nudged her to consider other professions. But Ziegler, a Riverland Technical College law enforcement, is resolved.

"My mom was like, 'can't you just go be a nurse?'"

Ziegler right now is the exception to the rule.

Law enforcement locally and nationwide is in the midst of a workforce crisis. The shortage is reflected not only in the plunging number of job applicants. It is also reflected downstream, in the shrinking number of students seeking degrees in law enforcement.

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Viral videos of police misconduct, such as the killing of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer last year, have damaged law enforcement's reputation. But the problem pre-dates the Floyd incident.

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

Minnesota State Colleges and Universities, the statewide college system, has been seeing a drop in number of law enforcement students for the last eight years — about the time when riots broke out in Ferguson, Mo., over the killing of a black man by a white police officer.

Even as demand for applicants soars, more officers are leaving law enforcement for other careers, and others are retiring. Rich Watkins, a Riverland law enforcement instructor, said he gets calls every week from agencies nationwide desperate for recruits.

Olmsted County Sheriff Kevin Torgerson said he recently attended a regional sheriff's meeting where everyone spoke of unfilled positions.

"Everybody is scrambling, and the problem is, we don't have enough applicants. There's not enough people that are coming out of college right now that are going into law enforcement," Torgerson said.

The issue is complicated by the nature of the work: Becoming an officer is not like applying to be a department store clerk. Hiring a police officer is long and multi-phased. There is an extensive background check. There are multiple interviews and a pass-fail physical fitness exam. And, by the end of that process, many applicants fall by the wayside.

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

Which is why departments like to draw from a deep pool of applicants. But that pool has shrunk. Torgerson recalled that when he tested to become a deputy in the mid-80s, there were as many as 400 people in the room seeking a handful of openings. The last test the department gave, 23 people applied.

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

"They're not encouraging their daughters and sons to get into law enforcement," Scheckel said. "It was a family tradition. But I hear it all the time. That's kind of going away."

"And that hurts, that hurts everybody," Torgerson said. "That is not just a law enforcement problem. It's a community problem."

Nallely Vazquez-Perez, a Riverland law enforcement student, is aware of the debate swirling around policing. At one time, Vazquez-Perez shared those negative attitudes toward police. As a Hispanic, she grew up in a family that viewed them in a negative light.

But her anti-police attitudes began to change in high school when she made friends with parents in law enforcement.

"I got to know them. I spent a long time around them. That was an eye-opener for me," 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 photographed 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 photographed Thursday, July 29, 2021, in Owatonna. Joe Ahlquist / Post Bulletin

On a ride-along with two Minneapolis police officers, Vazquez-Perez witnessed how minority officers can make a difference. She was riding with two Latina Minneapolis police officers when a call sent them to a domestic situation where two African-American women were arguing and screaming.

The black women were not listening to the white officers. But the arrival of the Hispanic officers had a calming influence.

"You could see how the situation changed," she said. "You could see that they had a lot more trust in officers because of their color."

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

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

"Crisis intervention training is huge right now," he said.

The focus on crisis intervention also underscores how much policing has changed. Today, officers respond to issues out of their traditional role, according to report from the Police Executive Research Forum called "The Workforce Crisis, and What Police Agencies are Doing About It."

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

Brett Peine, a Winona State University student, said he sometimes catches a note of hesitancy from friends when he tells of his plans to become a police officer. He believes policing is already changing. And in his small way, he hopes to contribute to that change.

"I would love to be part of a department that is trying new things and trying their best to work with the community," Peine said. "I think that can be a huge step forward."