Chaska chief talks guns, cancer and life behind the badge

A man wearing a suit and bow tie holds a small black dog.
Chaska Police Chief Scott Knight poses for a portrait with his dog, Champ, on Thursday. Knight is retiring after more than 40 years of service with the city.
Christine T. Nguyen | MPR News

Scott Knight almost didn’t make it to retirement.

Five years ago, his doctor had a hunch the nagging pain in Knight’s lower right jaw might be more than an infection from a wisdom tooth extraction. It turned out to be Stage 4 squamous cell carcinoma, a skin cancer, growing in his jaw.

Knight said doctors took half his face apart and put it back together over 18 hours of surgery. Laughing about it now, he said he was disappointed surgeons hadn’t left him with rock star looks.

“I told them when I woke up, ‘I want to look like Bruno Mars,’ he said. “It didn’t happen!”

Humor and humility are important tools for anyone in law enforcement. They’re essential if, like Knight, you’ve spent more than 40 years on the job.

As he steps into retirement, Knight offered MPR News a deep look into the growing diversity of his suburb, the changing nature of policing — and his worries about shortcomings he sees in Minnesota’s current gun laws.

An accidental police officer

Knight didn’t set out to become a police officer when he moved to Chaska in the early 1970s. He grew up in Minneapolis and made a living as a professional photographer.

Knight, though, kept a horse at a stable in Chaska. The stable owner was a member of the Carver County Sheriff’s Office mounted patrol. He convinced Knight to ride with them.

“It was more a social group than anything else,” he said. “We rode in parades. If ever there was a need for a large area to be searched they’d call us.”

Riding with the deputies on horseback made him eligible to ride in squad cars with Carver County’s sworn law enforcement officers. He liked it and developed a lot of friendships with sheriff’s deputies. He joined the sheriff’s office as a part-time deputy in 1975. A year later, Knight was recruited by the Chaska police chief.

A photograph of a man wearing a police uniform
Scott Knight was appointed police chief of the Chaska Police Department in January 2000.
Christine T. Nguyen | MPR

“He told me he was looking for a part time officer and he heard that I was, ‘OK,” laughed Knight.

After working for a while with both departments, Knight settled with Chaska and became a full time police officer, one of five on the force at the time.

Knight said he put down his camera and put on the badge because policing gave him the opportunity to make a difference in people’s lives right away.

“The immediacy of being there to remedy a bad situation, to help a victim - that job did this,” said Knight. “I was all in. So I decided, this is my job.”

‘Cops aren’t warriors’

Policing has changed a lot in the decades since Knight worked his first patrol shift. At that time, portable radios were limited in range, so officers had to use telephones to communicate.

There were no video cameras or computers in the squad cars. Knight said officers had to look up the prior records of suspects on index cards back at the station.

“Information technology is the biggest change and continually changing and evolving,” he said.

A lot has also changed when it comes to guns. Knight and other officers used to carry six-shot revolvers and extra bullets on their utility belts. Shooting calls were rare. Officer-involved shootings were rarer.

But that changed as the times became more violent. And Knight said officers had to adapt.

“The officers in our department — departments around the country — moved from the revolver to semi automatics in order to have more rounds available in the weapon beyond the six that the revolver offered,” said Knight. “Because in many scenarios they’re outgunned either by weaponry and or multiple threats.”

Chaska chief of police Scott Knight listens after testifying.
Chaska Police Chief Scott Knight listens to hearings after testifying in 2018 about legislation dealing with background checks.
Evan Frost | MPR News file

As gun violence became more common, Knight and other law enforcement leaders in Minnesota advocated for what they describe as “common sense gun laws.”

As head of the firearms committee for the International Association of Chiefs of Police and as the president of the Minnesota Chiefs of Police Association, Knight called for measures like universal background checks.

Currently in Minnesota, a person can buy a gun from a private seller without undergoing a background check which would be required if they bought the same gun from a federally-licensed dealer.

“So, we don’t know who they are,” said Knight. “We don’t know their background. We don’t know what’s going on in their life at that moment.”

Knight also worries that even legal buyers of guns are unfamiliar with the proper care, handling and storage of firearms.

Officer training has also changed a lot during Knight's career. The creation of a “warrior mindset” used to be emphasized, but it went too far, he said.

Critics say such training pushes officers to use force when de-escalation is the best option. As the number of fatal shootings of citizens by Minnesota police officers rises, that type of training has fallen out of favor by some police chiefs.

Knight acknowledged that police come into more frequent contact with people who are armed and are in crisis brought on by mental illness, drug abuse or emotional strife.

But while officers need to be prepared to defend themselves and others in danger, “Cops aren't warriors” and that mindset can make situations even more volatile, he said.

Knight said he believes the training pendulum is swinging the right way. State law now requires all Minnesota law enforcement officers undergo conflict de-escalation, mental health response and implicit bias training.

Changing face of Chaska

Chaska is also a much different place than when Knight moved there in the 1970s. His mounted patrol was occasionally called out to corral loose livestock. Housing developments now cover much of that former Chaska farmland.

It has become a larger, more ethnically diverse place. Knight embraced the growing diversity in Chaska, but realized that some residents did not feel welcomed.

The city’s Latino population began to grow in the 1980s, said Knight. He recalled an encounter he had one day with a 5-year-old girl who wanted to know if it would be OK for her Latino family to come to Chaska’s annual festival.

“How could that not be OK? You’re welcome! Come!,” he recalled telling her. “I’ll never forget that. It struck me. [And] still does … maybe that was an awakening. Maybe I just thought people just knew they were accepted, right? Because it never occurred to me they wouldn’t be accepted.”

Jaylani Hussein, executive director of CAIR-MN, talks to police.
Chaska Police Chief Scott Knight talks to Jaylani Hussein, the executive director of the Minnesota chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, on Oct. 14, 2018.
Chris Juhn for MPR News

Knight recently joined up with the YMCA of Minneapolis’ Equity Innovation Institute, which trains people in private and public sector organizations to recognize inequities, intolerance and exclusion.

He said the training helps people, who are willing and open to it, to identify the unconscious biases they hold.

It’s one of the many passions Knight will be able to pursue wholeheartedly now that he’s no longer chief of police. His last term officially ends in January of 2020. But Knight has already checked out of the office.

Knight also loves to cook and plans to use his extra time to expand his culinary repertoire. He’s married. He has three daughters and two grandchildren. Two of Knight’s daughters are in their 30s. His youngest is 14.

Knight reflected on how his faith in God has helped him. He especially remembers the day doctors told him that his cancer was gone and would likely not return.

“It made every day that much more valuable to me,” he said. “That’s my message to people … Each day is a gift.”

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