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Duluth Police Chief's View: Recruiting, retaining police a challenge to be met in 2022

From the column: "Policing done well can impact people’s safety and security, and we stand proud and ready to be there on someone’s worst day to offer them a hand up."

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Duluth police officers Sean Norland (from left), Kyle Pederson, Hayden Paulson and Nathan Abbott take the oath of office Friday during the City of Duluth Swearing in Ceremony at the Public Safety Building in Duluth. Six new officers were sworn in Friday afternoon. (Clint Austin / caustin@duluthnews.com)
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A couple years ago we were engaged in strategic planning and knew that the years 2022, 2023, and 2024 would bring with them the retirement of a significant number of officers and leaders who, like me, were hired in the 1990s. It was a simple math problem, and the impact was predictable. To prepare, we began doing successorship planning. We ramped up recruiting efforts to get in front of criminal-justice and law-enforcement students and to tout all the Duluth Police Department has to offer. Parthe’ Productions created recruiting videos for the department to use on social media and at recruiting fairs.

What we couldn’t have predicted was the tumult and angst toward policing that followed the tragic murder of George Floyd. Officers felt their work was not valued or appreciated. They carried with them frustration that the actions of other officers, representing the lowest common denominator in the profession, dominated the prevailing narrative for policing. They reacted by moving up their retirement dates.

We have witnessed more officers over the past year who, after carrying the burden of repetitive trauma over decades, felt forced to leave the profession suffering from PTSD. Further compounding our issues is we have fewer students than at any time in my 30 years who are seeking careers in policing. The demand for police officers is at an all-time high and supply is at an all-time low, leaving the laws of economics to give a clear advantage to the communities that have the capacity and priority to invest the most in their police departments. Signing bonuses, lateral pay, take-home cars, and wages elsewhere that are 15% to 30% higher than we currently offer our officers provide a competitive disadvantage in our efforts to lure the best graduates.

More troubling, we are seeing veteran police officers in the primes of their careers, with a wealth of competence and experience, going to other agencies which pay more and require less work. The irony in the economics of policing today is that the departments often paying the most have less crime and fewer calls for service, creating a competitive double-whammy by offering officers less exposure to risk and the ability to earn more. This makes it even tougher for the Duluth Police Department to compete, especially with our well-known reputation for being busy. Our officers respond to 100,000 incidents annually.

Kudos to Duluth’s police labor union, the city administration, and the City Council for understanding the significance of the police-compensation challenge to recruitment and retention and for working diligently to solve it via ongoing labor negotiations.

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I am in the final chapters of my career, and it has been the honor of my lifetime to serve the people in this community, the community I grew up in. I am blessed to be able to call so many here my friends, family, and neighbors. There is not another profession providing the vast array of opportunities to help more people than policing.

Policing done well can impact people’s safety and security, and we stand proud and ready to be there on someone’s worst day to offer them a hand up. It requires having compassion, empathy, understanding, and caring about people. When we see police, we want to see ourselves. We need to represent every race, culture, ethnicity, and gender, understanding how staffing diversely will make us better and stronger in our community.

Our commitment to continuous improvement and reimagined policing is on a trajectory for success, and I believe our best days are ahead of us. To realize success, we must have the best people entering the profession.

I encourage and challenge those among you who care deeply for people and are looking for a meaningful way to serve them to step forward and make a commitment to serve in the police profession. Serve your community here with the Duluth Police Department. Join us and be part of shaping the future of policing. The challenges will be far surpassed by the intrinsic rewards that you will carry with you for a lifetime, knowing you made a meaningful difference in people’s lives.

Mike Tusken is Duluth’s police chief. He wrote this at the invitation of the News Tribune Opinion page.

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Duluth Police Chief Mike Tusken (2020 file / News Tribune)

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