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Duluth Police Department looking to attract more officers as agencies struggle to fill positions

It wasn't so long ago that Duluth saw hundreds of applicants for open positions. But now the city is having to offer big pay and benefit boosts to avert critical shortages.

New Duluth Police Officer Katie Catton checks the radar in her squad car
Newly hired Duluth police officer Katie Catton checks the radar in her squad car before taking it out at the Public Safety Building on May 10.
Jed Carlson / Superior Telegram
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DULUTH — Looking for the right fit in her first job as a law enforcement officer, Katie Catton started her search close to home in the Twin Cities.

Catton didn't want to work in a city the size of Minneapolis or St. Paul, but she did hope to find an agency with the resources to provide rigorous on-the-job training and opportunities for advancement, with her eye on a future as a crime scene investigator.

Then she saw that the Duluth Police Department was hiring. Catton already enjoyed making trips to the city — her brother having played football at the University of Minnesota Duluth — and she liked the idea of working in a "bigger city that still feels kind of small."

New Duluth Police Officer Katie Catton checks the lights in her squad car
Duluth police officer Katie Catton checks the lights in her squad car before her shift May 10.
Jed Carlson / Superior Telegram

"It worked out perfectly with Duluth having their own crime scene unit," Catton said. "That's what I was really looking for when applying for jobs — so I don't have to move around, so I can stay with one department and get to my end goal easier."

But cities and counties across the state are locked in tight competition for a dwindling number of recruits like Catton. Law enforcement programs at area colleges have seen enrollment declines of 50% or more in recent years, and officials say veteran officers are also leaving the profession sooner, creating more gaps to be filled.

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New officer Katie Catton talks about training with the Duluth Police Department
New officer Katie Catton talks about training with the Duluth Police Department before going out on her shift May 10 at the Public Safety Building.
Jed Carlson / Superior Telegram

With Duluth already stretched thin on some shifts, the issue has led to city to implement some significant incentives in hopes of averting a critical shortage of police officers in the near future.

Notably, officers will see a 13% pay bump over the course of a new three-year union contract. The agency is also sweetening the deal for officers who may wish to transfer from another department, offering pay and benefits that take into account their prior experience.

"Competing with multiple agencies for the same pool of officers is difficult," Chief Mike Tusken said. "The incentives we are now offering allow us to be competitive when retaining our current staff, while also hiring qualified candidates moving forward."

Applications way down as department short-staffed

Lt. Steve Ring said a posting for police officer positions in 2017 yielded 124 applicants. Last year, the same process netted just 57.

Meanwhile, the department has an authorized strength of 158 sworn members, but was recently operating with just 139 — which includes those on light duty or family, medical or military leave.

A News Tribune examination of law enforcement training found local colleges hit hard in 2021-22, cutting new enrollments by half or more.

"I think it's due to the increased scrutiny on law enforcement as a profession," said Ring, who handles administrative duties, including hiring. "We're seeing that there are fewer people that are wanting to go to school to become an officer, but we're also seeing people who are leaving early, retiring early or they're taking other jobs."

It's been two years since George Floyd was murdered by a Minneapolis police officer, with trials still ongoing for fellow officers who were at the scene. And Minnesota has seen its fair share of other high-profile fatal police encounters, including the manslaughter of Daunte Wright by a Brooklyn Center officer last year and the shooting death of Amir Locke during a no-knock warrant in Minneapolis this year.

Katie Catton, who was sworn in to the Duluth Police Department in January, checks the camera in the back of her squad
Katie Catton checks the camera in the back of her squad car before taking it out.
Jed Carlson / Superior Telegram

Ring said he understands the hesitation of some to enter law enforcement today, but called it "a very noble profession" and said Duluth "has strong community support and excellent connections with people and organizations." And while numbers are down, he said the department won't lower its standards to fill positions.

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"We're looking for candidates who have very strong character traits," Ring said. "We're looking for people who are willing to give people a hand up when they're in need of that.

"We like applicants who have previous life experience, but we're also happy to have applicants that are fresh out of school, looking to enter the profession as their first job. Having a variety of backgrounds and experiences is great. But we do in our application process really stress the importance of having very strong character traits."

Pay, benefit boosts offered to current, new officers

Under the contract ratified by the Duluth Police Union in March, patrol officers, investigators and sergeants are receiving a 2% general wage increase plus an additional 8% "market adjustment" for 2022.

That means a first-year officer stands to make approximately $65,000 in base salary, while those with more than two years of service are looking at just under $80,000. The department has also lowered the bar for its longevity award — which pays an extra 4% monthly — from eight years to seven.

New Duluth Police Officer Katie Catton goes through a kit in the back of her squad
New Duluth police officer Katie Catton goes through a kit in the back of her squad.
Jed Carlson / Superior Telegram

The union had been particularly vocal about the need to boost pay and benefits, taking to social media regularly to point out that the Duluth Police Department offered the lowest pay among Minnesota cities with 50,000 or more people, while also being expected to replace approximately one-third of all sworn officers over the course of five years.

"Duluth had really fallen behind other places in the market when it comes to pay," said Ring, who had served as a union leader prior to his recent promotion. "This contract that was worked out with city administration and our city councilors has brought us a little higher up. I would say we still have a ways to go in regard to being competitive in the market, but we're all fighting the same fight. Other departments around the state are doing ally they can to incentivize attracting applicants."

Ring said he's aware of some cities offering signing and retention bonuses, for example, and said Duluth can't become complacent in its hiring practices.

Nearly a year after the Duluth NAACP demanded racially proportionate policing in Duluth, the News Tribune asked activists and authorities about what has changed and what is still to be accomplished.

One program that he said has proven beneficial is the ability to hire lateral police officers — those experienced in other agencies who can step in without undergoing months of training.

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A new agreement with the union gives top patrol pay to lateral hires with three or more years of experience, allows their experience to be counted toward vacation accrual rates and longevity awards and lets them apply for the department's "master cop" program, which includes additional pay incentives and specialty assignments upon the completion of a probationary period.

'I want to stay here as long as I can'

Catton joined the Duluth force in November, first taking part in a 12-week in-house academy given to all first-time officers. Since late January, she's been paired with seasoned officers to complete the lengthy field training requirement before she is allowed to work solo.

"Some smaller counties or cities are like, 'Here's a weeklong (training); now go do your thing,'" Catton said. "This one is about four months, but depending on the person it can be longer or shorter. It all depends on how you're doing. And that's really nice, because they're not rushing to get us out on the street. They want us to be good."

Duluth Police Officer Katie Catton logs into the computer in her squad car
Duluth police officer Katie Catton logs into the computer in her squad car.
Jed Carlson / Superior Telegram

Catton said she was drawn to the profession by the ability it offers to help out a community and "do something different every day."

It's "exciting but scary at the same time," she said, but Catton is hoping more young people will step up and pursue the career path.

"I don't have any plans on leaving any time soon," she said. "Or, honestly, ever. I want to stay here as long as I can."

The department just closed its latest posting for new recruits on Monday; applicants totals were not immediately available. But Ring noted that agency allows lateral applications year-round.

Tom Olsen has covered crime and courts for the Duluth News Tribune since 2013. He is a graduate of the University of Minnesota Duluth and a lifelong resident of the city. Readers can contact Olsen at 218-723-5333 or tolsen@duluthnews.com.
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