Mike Tusken wraps 30-year career at Duluth Police Department
The city's chief for more than six years discussed the evolution and future of policing in an exit interview with the News Tribune.
DULUTH — When Mike Tusken became the city's police chief in early 2016, he implemented a new rule for his command staff meetings.
"I never want to hear you people say, 'because we've always done it that way,'" Tusken recalled telling department leaders. "The beginning of the end for every organization starts with those words."
Tusken's tenure has indeed been marked by constantly evolving practices amid tremendous demand for greater accountability in policing.
For the past six years, he has led the Duluth Police Department through an unprecedented era of public scrutiny while dealing with record call volume, an opioid epidemic, surging gun violence and a pandemic.
As he prepares to retire Monday, Tusken sat down with the News Tribune to reflect on his 30 years with the agency and share his hopes for the future of the law enforcement profession.
"The fortunate history of our organization is that we've had really great people here that are really committed to continuous improvement," he said. "I wouldn't leave here if I didn't think we were in a good place."
'Someone who would treat people well'
Growing up in the Morgan Park neighborhood, Tusken was first inspired by his uncle, longtime Duluth police officer Rick Kaneski, who would drop by in uniform and drive a squad car.
Later, while attending Denfeld High School, a civil and criminal law class taught by Marv Heikkinen got him seriously hooked on the idea of becoming a cop.
He completed his law enforcement skills training at Hibbing Community College and, unable to immediately get a job at his hometown department — hundreds were often vying for just a few open positions in those days — Tusken went to work for the Minneapolis Police Department.
But then Scott Lyons, newly promoted as Duluth police chief, quickly brought him home in April 1992 as part of his first class of new hires.
"He was a young cop and he was aggressive," Lyons recalled recently. "Not mean-aggressive, but he wanted to do the right thing and he was always on top of things. I don't know if I would've thought at that time that he would be that leader. He was just a likable kid. You knew he was honest; you knew he was sincere. I wanted someone who would treat people well as a street cop, and Mike was one of those guys."
After a few years on patrol, Tusken was assigned to juvenile investigations and, later, as a school resource officer, which he called "the most meaningful work I've done."
"I still run into students in the grocery store who come up to me," he said. "Oftentimes, these are the students you've spent time with, or perhaps even written a ticket to or did some coaching or mentoring. And they come up to you and they're excited to show you pictures of their kids or tell you about their careers. It's kind of a delayed gratification."
Moving up the ranks
The "best job" Tusken said he's had is as a patrol sergeant, supervising a group of officers on the street.
"The backbone of this department is those folks that, when you call 911, show up at all hours, day and night," he said. "They show up with the intentions of making your life better, easier, improving it. Where I've spent so much of my time and attention and focus is the patrol cops, because that is really where the rubber meets the road."
But his career took an unexpected twist when then-Chief Roger Waller appointed him head of the newly established Financial Crimes Unit. Tusken recalled protesting, telling the chief: "I don't even balance my own checkbook."
"That ended up being a great experience," he said. "It really opened my eyes to how often you follow the money in any crime. There were ties to so many different crimes: burglaries, embezzlements, drug crimes. ... They were very detail-oriented investigations."
Tusken earned another promotion to lieutenant, briefly overseeing the east area command, before then-new Chief Gordon Ramsay tapped him in late 2006 to supervise the entire patrol division as deputy chief.
He would hold the No. 2 position in the department for the next nine years, serving as Ramsay's right-hand man and seamlessly stepping in when the chief departed for Wichita, Kansas, in early 2016.
"Mike was a hard worker," Ramsay said. "He wouldn't stop until the job was done. He was tenacious. And Mike has a great sense of humor. When things get a little serious or a little heavy, he has a way of lightening it up. In shift briefings, I always admired the way he could get cops laughing."
It was with Ramsay's encouragement that Tusken earned a bachelor's degree in criminal justice from Herzing University in Minneapolis — fulfilling the education requirement needed for new Mayor Emily Larson to appoint him to the chief job in May 2016.
Changing the way police work
The police have gotten a lot busier over Tusken's career, with annual call volume going from roughly 40,000 to 110,000. But they've also changed how they operate in many facets.
No longer is it just a bunch of uniformed cops and investigators. Now there are social workers and treatment professionals working inside the agency, including innovative teams dedicated to mental health and substance use response. The roughly 200-person department also includes positions such as community service officers, data analysts and grant writers.
"The evolution of policing will be the right tool for the right problem," Tusken said "There are different people that can show up in a time of crisis to help people. It doesn't always have to be 911. It doesn't always have to be the police. We're aware of that and we're embracing that."
He has been an advocate for finding ways to engage the community, especially youth, with police officers in positive settings, such as the weekly “Get Hooked on Fishing” program in the summer. Tusken said one of his favorite accomplishments was taking a donated Duluth Transit Authority STRIDE vehicle and converting it into a “community engagement bus” for annual events such as National Night Out and Kids, Cops & Cars.
While policing has been under increased scrutiny since the killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, in 2014, Tusken said he believed Duluth was in a relatively good position until 2020 hit.
First up was the COVID-19 pandemic, which shut down society, upended emergency response operations and put a hold on virtually every opportunity for officers to engage in proactive community engagement. For months, Tusken recalled, the most they could do was send squad cars to flash their lights at birthday parades across town.
Then, on Memorial Day, George Floyd was murdered by Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin. Tusken said he distinctly remembers watching the video and calling Sgt. Joel Olejnicak, who coordinates training and use of force policies for the department.
"I said, 'Well, there's going to be some things we can learn from this incident. But this is going to have a dramatic backlash toward law enforcement," the chief recalled. "I had no idea when I said 'dramatic,' the scale."
Demands for accountability
The Floyd killing sparked protests — some turning unruly — in Duluth and across the world. The ensuing riots in Minneapolis, Tusken said, were an example of the community rejecting the social contract that gives police the authority to do their job.
In the years since, local activists have taken aim at the Duluth Police Department, calling out alleged systemic issues that lead to racially disproportionate policing. Groups such as the NAACP and Law Enforcement Accountability Network have cited statistics showing higher rates of traffic stops, arrests and uses of force for people of color.
Jamey Sharp, who is involved in both organizations, said Tusken has implemented positive policies on issues such as mental health and addiction, but hasn't gone far enough to address the racial disparities head-on.
"The response often came back as, 'We're super-progressive about trying to generally reduce use of force in this department. We've done this, this and this. Look at how much our use-of-force numbers overall have gone down,'" Sharp said. "But, with that, it doesn't at all address the race piece. ... The disparity in use of force, how arrests and traffic stops are being used, is still vast."
The department earlier this year released a report from a consultant who was hired to analyze statistics. While Tusken acknowledged a historical issue of systemic racism in policing and called the report a "starting point," some activists criticized the report as an attempt to minimize the disparities and their root causes.
The city is now in the process of hiring a firm to conduct a full racial bias audit of the department.
As chief in a sizable city, Sharp said Tusken has taken on a politician-like role in which he is highly visible to the general public. He said the chief has been willing to engage in conversations, but is highly loyal to his officers and police culture, and activists have sometimes been frustrated not to see concrete policy changes.
"He really personally engages himself in the work," Sharp said of Tusken. "And I think that's why a lot of people love him, and why I've really enjoyed a lot of my personal interactions with him. However, I do think that in some ways, that political role may have made it a little bit harder to really kind of rationally address some of these issues."
'Probably not everyone is happy'
It takes a "thick skin" to do the job for 30 years, Tusken acknowledged, and there is always a "push-pull" relationship between demands from the community and his officers.
He maintained that Duluth has long been "ahead of the curve" in policing — for instance, banning chokeholds in 2000 and implementing body cameras in 2014, well before either of those were common policies in law enforcement.
The department is currently seeking to become the first in the state to be accredited by the Commission on Accreditation for Law Enforcement Agencies, which Tusken said will provide constant analysis of practices and report cards to the community.
"I haven't walked in a mile in the shoes of some of the critiques and criticisms that I've gotten from LEAN or from NAACP, but it is my job as a police chief to represent everyone in this community," he said. "Everyone has some level of critique or information or something they want to see better do done better or different.
"You want to tell your cops, 'Yep, you're doing great work. We're doing the right things. We're on the right path and trajectory. We have policies, procedures, supervision, where we hold people accountable.' And yet at the same time, there are groups here saying that there are opportunities for us to improve and be better. ...
"When you're doing policy development for a police department, you take in from as many people as you can a perspective, and then you try to build policies that are going to be reflective and be balanced. Usually, what you'll find if you're successful, is that probably not everyone is happy. No one feels like they got everything they want, because that just isn't the world we live in."
Supporting a bright future of policing
Tusken has exceeded the national average tenure for a police chief — about four years — and he said a change in leaders provides an opportunity to "elevate us to the next level."
Meanwhile, he'll have an opportunity to inspire the next generation as coordinator of the law enforcement skills program at Fond du Lac Tribal and Community College in Cloquet.
After the profession saw a "tremendous low point" with the Floyd murder and ensuing events, cops have left the profession en masse and colleges have seen dwindling enrollment. Duluth, with an authorized force of 158 sworn officers, is currently 22 short.
But Tusken said he's recently interviewed strong candidates who are getting into the profession and believes "the best days for law enforcement are ahead."
"I've always said there's people who are cops who have no business being cops," Tusken said. "But the vast majority of people who do this job do it for the right reasons and do a tough job and do it very well and treat people well."
Tusken follows in the footsteps of his first boss, Lyons, who headed up the FDLTCC program after retiring as chief. Lyons said it'll be good for Tusken to get out of the "pressure cooker."
"Personally, professionally, you lose your resiliency," Lyons said of being chief. "When he had the opportunity to do this — and I talked to him before he applied — I said, 'I think you'll like this. I think this will be nice.' He still gets to impact the career of policing in Duluth, without having to deal with the day-to-day stuff."