Duluth Police Chief Mike Tusken to retire, lead police training program
The "trusted, steady leader" of the department since 2016, Tusken said he hopes to inspire a new generation of law enforcement officers at Fond du Lac Tribal and Community College.
DULUTH — Calling it an "honor and privilege" to lead the Duluth Police Department for more than six years, Chief Mike Tusken announced his retirement at an emotional news conference Wednesday.
Tusken, a 30-year member of the force, will step down Aug. 1 to transition to a new role as coordinator of the law enforcement program at Fond du Lac Tribal and Community College.
“I am leaving this organization where we are in a good place,” Tusken told a crowded room of reporters, police officers and employees at the Public Safety Building. “I can’t tell you how proud I am of the people in this place.”
Tusken, 53, was appointed to the chief job in May 2016, having first assumed the role on an interim basis in January 2016. A Morgan Park native and Denfeld High School graduate, he has been with the agency since April 1992.
Eschewing credit for accomplishments during his tenure, and joking that he would have preferred to walk away from the job without any public announcement at all, Tusken praised former and current officers and said he believes the future is bright for the department.
“I never did the damn thing by myself,” he said. “It is the people that you see in this room; it is the hundreds of people who have done incredible things.
“How do you have a safe Duluth? You cannot do it with the people who wear uniforms every day. You cannot do it with our professional staff. You have to do it through relationships with this community. You have to have that social contract. You have to be able to build trust so people will call, will engage, will help.”
Mayor Emily Larson, who was confronted with the open police chief position when she first took office, described her pick of Tusken as “one of the best decisions I’ve ever made.”
"Having Mike Tusken serve as our police chief has been an absolute dream as a mayor," Larson said. "Mike is a trusted, steady leader who elevates everyone around him. He leads with heart, empathy, courage and a true belief in the power of policing to make people’s lives better and our communities safer.”
Larson will be responsible for appointing Tusken’s successor, with City Council approval. Chief Administrative Officer Noah Schuchman said timelines for the hiring process are expected to be determined in the coming weeks and that it will include an opportunity for community input.
An interim chief appointment is likely, Schuchman added.
Leadership through tumultuous era
Tusken, after earning a law enforcement degree from Hibbing Community College, served a brief stint with the Minneapolis Police Department before he was recruited to return to his hometown of Duluth in April 1992, part of the first class of officers hired by Chief Scott Lyons.
Over the years, he served as a patrol officer, school liaison officer, head of the department's financial crimes unit and commander of the eastern policing district before newly appointed Chief Gordon Ramsay picked him for a deputy chief slot in 2006.
Tusken was in the department’s No. 2 position, as head of the patrol division, for more than nine years until Ramsay departed for the chief job in Wichita, Kansas. Tusken, while completing his bachelor’s degree in criminal justice from Herzing University in Minneapolis, was named interim chief in January 2016 and ultimately emerged as the mayor’s choice following a community-driven hiring process that considered 11 internal and external applicants.
Tusken has led the department through a tumultuous era of policing, implementing and expanding a number of innovative programs but also seeing the department come under scrutiny from community activists.
Through his tenure as chief, Tusken has been an outspoken advocate in support of alternatives to incarceration, particularly for those struggling with mental illness, homelessness and chemical dependency.
With grant funding, the department in 2018 established a mental health team that is now known as the CORE Unit, pairing social workers and a registered nurse with officers to address issues with people who are subject to frequent calls for service. The hiring of an opioid technician in 2018 has also led to the burgeoning Substance Use Response Team, which pairs treatment professionals with officers to help get individuals out of the criminal justice system and into recovery.
With opioid overdoses surging, the department also rolled out the life-saving reversal drug naloxone to every patrol officer. And the agency has embraced new technology, such as less-lethal launchers, that are intended to help control volatile situations without the use of a firearm.
On an administrative side, Tusken has overseen the implementation of a more efficient and comprehensive records management system, the resumption of the CompStat model that uses data to help identify crime trends and better direct resources, and undertaken an exhaustive organizational assessment.
But it has, at times, been a bumpy road, as police departments across the country have faced criticism in wake of high-profile incidents, including the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis.
Tusken has weathered community pushback to some proposals, including a lengthy debate over the purchase of riot gear, or personal protective equipment, for officers — a measure eventually approved by the City Council nearly after it was first proposed, also leading to the adoption of new policies through the city’s Citizen Review Board.
The department has also navigated labor and legal processes following controversial police encounters, including one officer who was given his job back after he was fired for dragging a handcuffed man through the downtown skywalk system in 2017 and the case of an officer who was recently acquitted of shooting an unarmed man through the closed door of a apartment in 2020.
Most recently, Tusken has been faced with calls from groups including the Duluth NAACP and the Law Enforcement Accountability Network to end racially disproportionate policing in the city, with activists citing higher rates of traffic stops, arrests and uses of force against people of color. The department responded by hiring a consultant to review demographic data, and is now in the process of completing a full racial bias audit.
Through it all, Larson thanked Tusken for his “big laugh, bigger heart and his selfless service and dedication.”
“Chief Tusken has never ever shied away from the important tough questions of transparency and accountability,” she said, “and in an era when we must all have a critical eye on policing strategies and expanding trust within our communities, Mike has been of incredible service and value to Duluth.”
Inspiring the next generation
Tusken was joined at the news conference by his wife, Kathy, and his brother, Tom, the principal at Denfeld. His golden retriever, Rudy, the unofficial therapy dog known to grace the halls of the Public Safety Building, wandered the room to much attention.
He said six years as chief exceeds the national average — which is about four years — but that “my wife would say it's two years too late.”
The couple lives in Esko and has raised three children, the youngest of whom just graduated from high school. While saying he felt like he could do the chief job another 10 years, Tusken explained that the timing of the Fond du Lac opening was a motivating factor in his decision to step away after many years of long hours and sacrifices to his family life.
He acknowledged there’s a “finite window” to wield influence as a leader, and that he’s likely upset some people along the way, but Tusken said he’s worked with hundreds of colleagues and “there's no one in this organization that I've never liked and appreciated.”
“You’ve got to continually reinvent yourself and reinvent your organization,” Tusken said of the leadership role. “You've got to continually work at inspiring people who work here, even when it's a tough job. And, so, as far as the tenure, I think truly I could have stayed here longer. But I will say that I think it's really good for me to step away right now.”
Tusken, the 36th police chief in the city's 152-year history, has been teaching community policing courses at Fond du Lac for five years and he hopes to inspire a new generation to enter policing. Fond du Lac’s law enforcement program has seen its enrollment cut in half in recent years as the profession has undergone intense scrutiny.
Duluth, which has an authorized strength of 158 officers, currently needs to fill more than 20 positions, and more retirements are expected in the near future. When Tusken was hired, it was typical to see 300-500 applicants in an annual hiring cycle. A recent posting for 12 positions netted just 36 candidates, he said.
“I truly, truly believe that if we hire good people, we are going to have good outcomes,” Tusken said. “And so how do we get those people? How do we measure those people? How do we train those people so that we have great outcomes? That's where my passion and energy is going to rest.”
Tusken will succeed former Cloquet Police Chief Wade Lamirande as coordinator at Fond du Lac.
“He will continue to build on the college’s successful program with his wealth of experiences and knowledge," President Stephanie Hammitt said in a statement. "FDLTCC is fortunate to have such a person join the faculty.
Hammitt also thanked Lamirande for his eight years of leadership.
“The law enforcement profession has been under a great deal of scrutiny and has gone through some recent transformational changes which he has been able to discuss and share his expertise with students and the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities System; a true leader.”
This story was updated at 7:43 p.m. June 8 with background information and additional information from the news conference. It was originally posted at 10:40 a.m. June 8.