Budget crunch forces cities and counties to rethink policing

Deputy Sheriff Jeff Nelson writes a ticket
Deputy Sheriff Jeff Nelson types up a ticket for the driver of a van who was driving on a revoked license. Nelson has been assigned to patrol Bird Island, Minn. after the city disbanded its police department.
Photo by Jackson Forderer for MPR News

Renville County Deputy Jeff Nelson enters The Broaster cafe on Highway Avenue and stops at the front counter to order a caramel roll and meet a few regulars. He's been driving his squad from one end to the other of this small, west central Minnesota city, a routine that takes all of five minutes.

Bird Island is home to just over 1,000 people. To save tax dollars, it disbanded its full-time police department at the end of June and now contracts for law enforcement with the sheriff's office. Twenty three-year-old Nelson is the newly assigned deputy.

In just over two weeks on the job, Nelson hasn't received a single police call. So he makes the rounds, hoping to run into residents watering their lawns or fixing their cars so he can introduce himself.

"I've had a good reception," said Nelson, who sometimes blushes during conversations. "It's been pretty positive. I'm going to try to keep it that way."

Inside The Broaster, Nelson munches his caramel roll as the diner's owner, Betty Schemmel, approaches. She expresses no objections to the new policing arrangement, though she says, "I was sorry to see our officers lose their jobs." Nelson is welcome anytime for coffee, she offers, implying the traditional gratis arrangement. When he admits he's not much of a mud drinker, Schemmel says, "A can of pop works, too."

At the next table, lifelong Bird Island resident Doug Vanderhagen sips from a mug. What does he think of a sheriff's deputy patrolling the city's streets rather than a local officer? "We'll see how the dollars come out," he says. "That will be the test."

Rural Minn. crime rates 2000 - 2010
Rural Minn. crime rates 2000 - 2010
MPR graphic/ Will Lager

These conversations are happening all over the state as budget tightening leads cities and counties to rethink how they provide law enforcement services, which can be one of a community's heftiest expenditures of tax dollars. Local officials, who until recently had been increasing public safety spending, have reversed course, even as costs related to fuel, salaries, pensions and technology continue to rise. "The cost of doing these jobs is probably at an all time high," said Anne Finn, public safety lobbyist for the League of Minnesota Cities.

"When the river is flooding and there's no deputy to run ahead like Paul Revere and warn people, now what do you do?"

Since the beginning of 2007, 20 communities have disbanded their police departments, according to the Minnesota Board of Peace Officer Standards and Training. Some of those have partnered with neighboring cities for services. Others have contracted with local sheriffs for patrols or simply for help with paperwork and administration. Still others have opted to go it alone when it comes to minor offenses, relying on sheriff's deputies only for emergencies.

In addition to those 20, many cities have trimmed the number officers they put on the street.

Sheriff and police spending 2000 - 2010
Sheriff and police spending peaks in 2009. After rising for many years, sheriff spending and city police spending outside Minneapolis and St. Paul dropped in 2010, the latest year figures are available. Law enforcement officials say the number is likely to remain flat or drop further when 2011 and 2012 are tallied. Source: Minnesota State Auditor
MPR graphic/ Will Lager

The strain is felt by the state's sheriff's departments as well, whose budgets have remained flat or even decreased in recent years, while their spheres of responsibility have grown.

In some cases, these cuts have led to longer response times, fewer traffic citations and a reduced ability to deal with non-crime-related incidents. "We can stop taking the dog calls and stop investigating tall grass," said Jim Franklin, executive director of the Minnesota Sheriffs' Association. "But when the river is flooding and there's no deputy to run ahead like Paul Revere and warn people, now what do you do?"

On the whole, crime in rural Minnesota has been declining for years, though some categories of property crime have risen lately driven in part by high metal prices. Local cops tend to deal with lots of traffic and animal infractions, yet law enforcement decisions can be complicated and, as they relate to perceptions of personal safety, emotionally and politically fraught.

Late last year, the city of Foley, near St. Cloud, spent months struggling to figure out a workable law enforcement strategy after declining to renew a contract with the Benton County Sheriff, in place since 2003 when the city disbanded its force. City officials considered the novel approach of hiring a private security firm, but in the end reconstituted the police department.

Renville County Sheriff Scott Hable likes to emphasize the value of community policing, and he said he hired Nelson to patrol Bird Island with that in mind. Deputies in his department are expected to sit in diners and talk to people. They are expected to ride in parades and appear at the county fair.

Deputy Nelson
With the disbanding of the Bird Island police department, Deputy Sheriff Jeff Nelson is now taking on the responsibility of patrolling the small community in Central Minnesota.
Photo by Jackson Forderer for MPR News

In fact, he warned Bird Island against disbanding its department, even though the move expanded his authority. "In small towns, everyone knows who the police officer is," Hable said. "It's not uncommon for the townsfolk to capture a dog and go to the chief's house and knock on the door and say, 'Hey, I caught this dog.' What I told the city was, 'From a community oriented policing perspective, in my opinion, you are better off with a police department than a contract.'"

Besides potentially losing the personal touch, Hable said a city with a contract can experience longer response times to police calls. "Let's say the deputy is on one far end of Renville County . . and there is a dire emergency in Bird Island. With their own police department, though that officer might not be out on patrol, he is more than likely at his house on call. At a maximum he is one mile away.... He would be there in five or 10 minutes. Unfortunately, the response time would be longer for the deputy on the other side of the county." On weekends especially, he said, "It could be 20 minutes or even more."

"You are better off with a police department, (but) there is a financial side to this as well."

Hable acknowledged fiscal realities, however. "There is a financial side to this as well. It might be that a city would appreciate some cost savings. That's not a question for me. That's up to the city council."

Bird Island City Administrator Deb Lingl said the arrangement for 60 hours of patrol will cost the city a little over $144,000 in 2013, about $25,000 less than the last police department budget. She thinks the city could save more when it comes to equipment purchases and repairs. So far, the county service has been good, she said. "I heard a lot of comments from people who thought we wouldn't get enough coverage, but I think there is more coverage now."

IDENTITY ISSUES AND LOOSE DOGS

Most cities that have disbanded their police departments in recent years report being satisfied with the arrangements they've made. And to varying degrees, they've saved money. Biwabik closed its department in 2009 and contracted with the nearby city of Gilbert for patrols. The goal was to cut the budget, but also to stave off future cost hikes that threatened to degrade service.

So far, savings are modest, said Biwabik administrator Jeff Jacobson, but the city didn't want to cut back on police hours. He said Gilbert officers wear Biwabik pins on their uniforms to show allegiance to both cities. "Identity issues had always stood in the way," he said. "We tried to alleviate those. Both communities went through the school [merger] thing in the last 10 to 15 years. That was still a fresh wound for some people."

Mora in central Minnesota faced a tough budget in 2010 and opted to disband its police department and contract with the Kanabec County Sheriff. "We had to do something," said city administrator Joel Dhein. He said the city is saving about $100,000 per year, largely because "the sheriff is doing basically with five officers what we had six officers doing." In addition, he said, the city saves on administrative, training and equipment costs. "We don't have to have our own lab equipment and breathalyzers."

Often, small towns tend not to have a lot of serious crime but find they nonetheless have to solve some non-emergency problems anyway after they do away with their police departments and contract with sheriffs. In Erskine in northwestern Minnesota, clerk treasurer Sharon Kotrba has a beefed up system of administrative citations and sends out fines to city code violators.

A href="http://minnesota.publicradio.org/display/web/2011/12/14/ground-level-forced-to-choose-redesign-police/">Hendricks in western Minnesota, pays the Lincoln County sheriff $35,000 a year, less than what it used to spend on a police department. But there are nuisances the sheriff's department doesn't handle, like loose or barking dogs, which seem to be a bane to many a city administrator. "We did hire (an animal control) person to come through a few hours a month and do random checking," said Blees. "We're hoping it doesn't take too much. If you get a few dogs and force a few owners to pay to get their dogs back, you get the word around that the city is serious about taking care of the dog problem." Of the dog catcher, he said, "We don't want it to be an ongoing thing."

KEEPING THE POLICE CRUISER, JUST IN CASE

Lingl did a lot of checking around before Bird Island made the call to sign a contract with Renville County. She found nearby cities happy with their arrangements, but still the decision wasn't easy. "We have folks here who are upset about it and think it won't work out," she said. "I think it works really well everywhere they've tried it." As a backup, she said the city will keep one of its police cruisers insured and in the garage, at least for a while. "If it doesn't work, we will have our car."

Bird Island also kept its old police station, where Nelson works sometimes, though he prefers to be on the move. The office is stark except for the presence of furniture and a few cardboard boxes half full of paperwork. He thinks there are benefits to going with the sheriff that go beyond cost savings. "We have more resources with investigators," he says. "The county is going to be the biggest law enforcement agency around. We have more training and expertise."

Nelson picks up two brown paper and tape wrapped pieces of evidence from an auto store burglary in 2010 and heads out the door. "I'm returning some old pieces of evidence that have been gathering dust," he says. "The crime is closed."

He enters Auto Value on Highway Avenue holding the evidence and presents it to the store's manager, Todd Fritsche, who bursts out laughing. He unwraps the pieces. "This is the hardware, but where is the cash drawer?" Nelson says he'll take another look around the old office to see if it's hiding in a corner somewhere.

"In 2010, they jimmied the lock and pried back the aluminum frame to get the door open," Fritsche explains. The thieves stole the cash drawer and thousands of dollars worth of merchandise. He never saw the cash again, but thanks to collaborative work between the city police and the sheriff's department, more than half the merchandise was returned.

Asked how he feels about the new sheriff's contract, Fritsche says, "For the size of the town, I think it's a good move. I'm sorry for the guys who had their jobs cut, but in this day and age that is always a concern. It makes sense economically. Having an officer coming through and assigned to the town is a good thing."

Your support matters.

You make MPR News possible. Individual donations are behind the clarity in coverage from our reporters across the state, stories that connect us, and conversations that provide perspectives. Help ensure MPR remains a resource that brings Minnesotans together.