Cass Lake has had its own police force for more than 70 years. But by the end of this year, the local cops in blue uniforms will be gone.
Cass Lake officials say their problem is the same as what many rural Minnesota communities face -- declining population. In the 1950s, Cass Lake was bustling with about 3,000 people. Now, the population is down to around 850. Mayor Wayne LaDuke says a new home hasn't been built in his town since 1980.
LaDuke says cutting local police from the budget will allow the city to focus on other critical needs, like long overdue street and infrastructure repairs.
"Unless we change how we do business, we're looking at double digit tax increases for the next 10 or 15 years," said LaDuke. "There's not a resident or a business in this community that can afford double digit tax increases. We would absolutely kill ourselves and our tax base."
LaDuke says cutting the city police department doesn't mean Cass Lake will be without protection. City officials are working on a deal with the Cass County Sheriff's Department. The city would pay the county to patrol the city. LaDuke says the county has the ability to provide even better law enforcement services than the city now offers.
"They're going to see more efficient police protection, more reliable police protection at a considerable cost savings," LaDuke said.
The move is controversial, and it has some people worried. The Cass Lake area has one of the top crime rates in Cass County. Drugs are a big problem, and there have been some recent high profile violent crimes in the community.
Karl Salscheider is the assistant high school boys basketball coach. He lives outside the city, but still worries that eliminating local police will send the wrong signal to youth. Salscheider says he doubts the sheriff's department can provide the same level of service.
"I would suspect that the criminal elements that surround us will flourish under a situation where there's not that type of presence," said Salscheider. "To eliminate a local police force is the act of a dying community. Cass Lake is not a dying community. We need to go forward, and the staple of our community is our local police force."
Cass County has worked out similar deals with other small towns. Sheriff Randy Fisher says Cass Lake is unique because it's also the headquarters of the Leech Lake Indian Reservation. The tribe has its own police force, and those officers frequently work with county deputies in the area. Fisher says small governments are facing tough economic times, and that's going to require more cooperation.
"I think that networking and collaboration is increasing, not only between local units of government, but especially law enforcement agencies," said Fisher. "When those efforts actually result in savings, I think that's an opportunity that we shouldn't pass up."
State officials say the number of small town police forces has fallen 20 percent since 1980. Just since the year 2000, more than 60 departments have dispanded or merged. Many of them now depend on county deputies for public safety protection.
Minnesota Board of Peace Officer Standards and Training director Neil Melton says residents of these small towns often find the change difficult.
"They really don't care what's written on the side of the truck that plows the snow in the winter, but for some reason they really like to have their town sort of emblazoned on the side of a patrol car," said Melton. "They feel a sense of ownership, I guess, a little bit of Americana."
The city of Cass Lake's arrangement with Cass County isn't a done deal, and there may now be a new bidder interested in providing public safety services for the town.
The Leech Lake Band was invited to make a proposal earlier this year, but didn't respond. Since then, the band has elected new leaders. Those tribal officials are now interested in expanding their police services into the city.