Protect, serve — and paddle? Ely tries North Woods pitch to recruit new cops

A canoe on top of a police SUV
The Ely Police Department created this "we're hiring" image highlighting an offer of a free canoe for police officers who join the department. The department is one of many around Minnesota that have struggled to recruit officers in a tight labor market.
Courtesy of Ely Police Department

The city of Ely has come up with a distinctively North Woods pitch to help attract and retain badly needed police officers.

Any new recruit, or current officer, who serves for at least three years will receive a brand new Kevlar canoe, complete with paddles and life jackets — a $3,800 value.

“Whether the applicant is just starting their career, or a veteran officer, we want to outfit them for their next adventure here in Ely,” said the city’s police chief, Chad Houde.

The $30,000 incentive program, approved by the Ely City Council on Tuesday, is paid for with public safety funding approved during the last state legislative session that distributed aid to communities across Minnesota to spend in a variety of ways, from equipment needs to recruitment efforts.

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The campaign is a creative approach to a major staffing shortage that is affecting not only Ely’s police department, but law enforcement agencies across Minnesota and nationwide, as overall interest in the profession has declined.

There are about 10,000 licensed peace officers in Minnesota who work for just over 400 different law enforcement agencies around the state. As of this week, 201 agencies have job postings.

“That’s just crazy, that half the departments in our state have current openings,” Houde said.

Near Ely, of the 11 agencies around the Iron Range — including the St. Louis County Sheriff’s Office — eight are hiring for open positions. A handful of police departments in small communities around the state have closed their doors over the past two years.

Meanwhile, fewer people are applying for those openings. Houde said in 2020, he had 25 applicants for three positions. The following year, five people applied for one position. Last year, he hired two people out of a pool of three applicants. More recently, he only had one applicant for an open position.

“With fewer law enforcement candidates out there, many of these municipal agencies are competing against each other. We’re fighting for each other’s applicants,” Houde lamented.

A rainbow rises over a lake.
A rainbow rises over the South Arm of Knife Lake in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness in July 2021.
Dan Kraker | MPR News file

Hence the need, he said, for a creative campaign to help lure officers to Ely, often billed as the “Canoe Capital of the World,” and the gateway to the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness.

“I want us to stand out. We could offer money,” he acknowledged, but he doubts whether that would make a difference, when cities around the state are offering thousands of dollars to new hires, along with other incentives, including tuition reimbursement and wellness programs.

Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey, for example, recently pitched a $15 million plan to give new hires a $15,000 bonus.

Small towns like Ely can’t afford the wages that larger departments such as Minneapolis offer. One of Houde’s officers is leaving next week to take a job in a larger city, where the starting wage is $4 more per hour than the top wage Ely can offer, he said.

What he can offer, he said, is an opportunity to live and work every day near lakes and woods and wilderness, in a place where many Minnesotans love to vacation.

The Ely department has seven officers when fully staffed, including his position. There are currently two openings.

Houde said he hopes the canoe package — the brainchild of Assistant Police Chief Mike Lorenz — will help attract two new officers, and entice four current officers and an administrative staffer to stay in town.

New or current staff members will need to stay with the department for at least three years to receive the full benefit of the canoe package. If they leave before three years, they’ll be required to pay back all or part of the $3,800 amount, depending on how much time has passed.

Houde won’t receive a new canoe, he said, adding he told the city council that he already intends to work in Ely as long as he’s wanted.

“We needed a way to highlight our department and community and why officers should come work and live in Ely,” Houde said. “We need a way to attract and retain officers by providing them a way to experience the outdoor lifestyle that Ely provides.”