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Our View: Our health, safety depend on having enough nurses, police

From the editorial: "Legislation has been introduced ... to improve the recruiting and retaining of nurses and police officers. With both crime and the pandemic refusing to let us sleep at night, successfully bolstering both professions is something Minnesotans can find easy to get behind."

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Monte Wolverton / Cagle Cartoons

On the heels of the Great Resignation and with labor shortages dragging on for everything from health care workers and substitute teachers to bus drivers and burger flippers, the Minnesota Legislature is stepping up to help out two professions critical to our health and public safety.

Legislation has been introduced early this session in St. Paul to improve the recruiting and retaining of nurses and police officers. With both crime and the pandemic refusing to let us sleep at night, successfully bolstering both professions is something Minnesotans can find easy to get behind.

For law enforcement, Senate Republicans in St. Paul last week unveiled six bills they collectively referred to as a COPS Program (or a “Creating Opportunities in Public Safety” Program). They propose spending $65 million to attract “non-traditional candidates” to law enforcement, to give scholarships and financial aid to students who want to be cops, to offer up to $5,000 in tuition reimbursements for recently licensed peace officers and those working toward becoming officers, to award $10,000 bonuses to newly hired peace officers, and to market law enforcement as a “rewarding and honorable” career.

“After aggressive efforts to defund and demoralize police officers, it’s time we spread the word of the good work law enforcement officers do every day to keep our communities safe,” the Minnesota Senate Republican Caucus wrote at its COPS Program website.

There’s no question about the need for more police.

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Nationally, officer resignations increased 18% and retirements jumped 45% in 2020-21 over 2019-20, according to survey results released in June by the nonprofit Police Executive Research Forum. In Minnesota, just last year, 32 police chiefs retired, the Senate Republicans reported.

In the Northland, like elsewhere, education and training programs for law enforcement are struggling to attract students. The Fond du Lac Tribal and Community College's cadet numbers in Cloquet are down by roughly half, while Hibbing Community College only has 12 first-year students this year compared to its usual 30 to 35, as the News Tribune reported in January.

Departments are falling short, too, in filling open law-enforcement positions.

“People across Minnesota are feeling less safe in recent months, and part of that is because our state is short nearly 800 officers,” Sen. Jason Rarick, R-Pine City, said in announcing the COPS Program. “Men and women are just feeling driven away from the profession as a result of the negativity and (the) demonization policing saw over the last year.”

Not that law enforcement has done itself many favors with high-profile police shootings continuing to grab headlines, including last week’s shooting death of Amir Locke in Minneapolis during a no-knock warrant.

The Duluth Police Department, for one, saw the many retirements coming.

“The demand for police officers is at an all-time high and supply is at an all-time low,” Duluth Police Chief Mike Tusken wrote for the News Tribune in a commentary published on New Year’s Day. “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.”

Any gains have been offset, though, by the recent negativity over policing and by low pay for police in Duluth, Tusken said.

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“The package proposed today is specifically designed to counteract that and bring safety back to our communities by showing men and women seeking to become (law enforcement officers) that they have our respect and appreciation,” said Rarick.

Just like moments of bad policing and mounting bad publicity have driven law enforcement from our streets, the burnout-bolstering pandemic has taken nurses and other health care workers out of our hospitals and clinics. One in five health care workers has left the profession since the pandemic started, the Atlantic reported in November, and the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates health care has lost nearly half a million workers since February 2020. This was after its ranks had grown 35% in a decade in Minnesota, according to the state Board of Nursing.

Look no further than the teams of doctors and nurses from the National Guard and from the U.S. Department of Defense stabilizing hospital staffing levels in Minnesota this winter for an illustration of the crisis.

To address it, last week, DFL lawmakers, including Rep. Liz Olson of Duluth, and others introduced the Keeping Nurses at the Bedside Act. It calls for limiting how many patients nurses can care for at a time, establishing committees to set staffing levels hospital to hospital, stepping up recruitment and retention efforts, forgiving health care workers’ student loans, increasing reviews of hospital-safety data, and establishing mental health help for nurses.

“Our nurse staffing crisis … existed long before COVID-19, but addressing it is all the more urgent due to the pandemic,” Olson said in a statement distributed by the Minnesota Nurses Association union. “Minnesota nurses deserve more than hollow lip service that puts them on a pedestal as heroes, only to demand they continue working short-staffed with grueling hours and unacceptable patient-to-staff ratios.”

Just as the bills to support police will find resistance from DFLers, the legislation for nurses will have its critics inside and outside the Capitol, including those who feel employers should determine and set safe staffing levels, not employees.

Compromises can be found, though. Our critical shortages of workers, especially in law enforcement and health care, demand effective solutions, beyond press conferences filled with party rhetoric.

For the health, security and public safety of all Minnesotans, the COPS Program and the Keeping Nurses at the Bedside Act — or measures similar to them — need to succeed.

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