A tour of the Fosston Police Department takes just minutes.
There's the chief’s office, a small workroom for officers and a short wall of historical photos marking the law enforcement presence dating to the first marshal appointed in 1889.
Dustin Manecke is the first chief of police for the rebuilt department in this town of 1,451 about 45 minutes west of Bemidji on U.S. Highway 2.
The highway across northern Minnesota brings several thousand vehicles through the community daily. A bustling industrial park draws about 750 workers a day into town.
Until earlier this year, Fosston was under contract with the Polk County Sheriff’s Office for policing.
Such arrangements are now common in Minnesota.
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Data from the Minnesota Board of Peace Officer Standards and Training show the number of law enforcement agencies in Minnesota declined from 501 in 2000, to 420 in 2020.
"I know the trend in today's world where small towns are disbanding police departments, not that they don't like them, or they're not pertinent to their area — but a lot of it comes down to funding," said Manecke.
Fosston decided to increase funding for law enforcement, creating a four-person department in January.
The city was spending $250,000 a year for a contract with the Polk County Sheriff’s Office to provide coverage from two deputies, said Mayor Jim Offerdahl.
The decision to create a new police department started with a city council discussion about law enforcement spending.
“And the conclusion was, no, we're not spending enough on law enforcement. We haven't been for years,” said Offerdahl, who was elected to the city council in 2001 and has been mayor since 2006.
After deciding they needed to spend more on law enforcement, city leaders weighed the options: expand the contract with the sheriff’s department, or start from scratch.
"It became apparent that we could get more service and more community-oriented service by having our own department versus expanding a contract with the sheriff's department," recalled Offerdahl.
He’s quick to acknowledge it’s not that the sheriff’s department did a bad job, but he said residents wanted more enforcement of city ordinances, and the mayor felt the city needed a stronger focus on community policing.
"Fosston is a relatively peaceful town,” Offerdahl said. “But there's plenty of criminal activity too, anything from drugs to vandalism."
Chief Manecke sees dealing with the little irritations of life as an important part of policing in a small town.
"I have to train my officers that yes, it might be a barking dog to us, but for them, (residents calling in) this is the biggest problem in their life right now," Manecke said.
The new Fosston Police Department was formed in January and has responded to 1,061 calls since officers hit the streets in late February.
The department averages 40-60 traffic stops a month, and they’ve handled a range of incidents including sexual assault, domestic violence, mental health crises, thefts, vandalism and narcotics.
The city council approved a department budget of about $400,000 according to city administrator Cassie Heide, who said the additional funding came from “tightening the budget” and not cutting any existing services.
This job is a homecoming for Dustin Manecke. He grew up in Fosston before moving to Fargo-Moorhead. He spent a year with the Cass County Sheriff’s Office and nine years with the West Fargo Police Department, rising to the rank of detective in a department with 65 employees.
“And I worked a lot of really big, really neat cases,” he said, “But coming back home, being able to be a part of something that is in my heart, it means a lot to me."
Manecke and his wife, who is also a Fosston native, moved back to the area in 2018 to raise their young family in a small town close to family. Manecke stepped away from law enforcement to run a family business before the opportunity arose to build a department from scratch in his hometown.
He said city officials agreed that if they were going to start a police department, they would do it right: competitive pay and the latest gear, including body-worn cameras.
When they advertised for two officers early this year, there were 18 applicants.
In addition to the chief, there are two patrol officers and a recently hired sergeant. Two of the three are longtime local residents.
Starting a police department involved a lot of details, finding equipment amidst supply chain disruptions, designing a badge and a uniform patch and getting the FBI to unretire the federal identification number for the Fosston Police Department.
Manecke is learning crime and human nature don’t change much from a city of nearly 40,000 where he previously worked, and a rural town of fewer than 1,500.
"One of the things that was so similar to the West Fargo, Fargo-Moorhead area was the mental health issues. There is a dire need for mental health services in Fosston, just like in every community," he said.
Trying to bring more mental health services to the area has become a priority for Manecke.
Another priority is the department being seen in the community. Visiting the schools, stopping at the coffee spots, keeping his office door open for visitors.
He’s also learned a small-town police chief wears many hats.
“You're a counselor, you're a dad to this child, you're an officer, you're a firefighter, you just keep changing the hats,” he said.
The mayor and the chief say most local residents like the change.
At a local convenience store, clerk Martin Johnson said he was glad to see a local police presence.
“Because it usually takes the county cops a little while to get here. Now that we’ve got a police station in town they’re here a little quicker. The benefit is the response time for sure,” he said.
Of course, not everyone in a small town is thrilled to have more police presence on the streets.
"You're always going to get the person that isn't happy that they got stopped and feel like, ‘Why do I need to stop at the stop sign now if I didn't have to stop at it the last 10 years?’ ” said Manecke.
He’s stopped a few people for ignoring traffic laws, but said he’s yet to write a ticket for those offenses, choosing education over enforcement. That might change if scofflaws don’t get the message.
City officials have run long-term budget projections and are confident the Fosston Police Department is here to stay.