Tough job market helps Mankato recruit volunteer cops

For the last couple of years, thanks to tight budgets, Mankato has been ramping up its use of unpaid, licensed officers at special events and even to patrol the city. Now the city is moving to integrate them more fully into its regular police force.

Mankato has between 12 and 15 unpaid part-time officers, according to Todd Miller, the city’s director of public safety. They are licensed and given uniforms but have to supply their own guns. “We are actually in the process of looking to expand that even further,” Miller said. “We’re trying to look at how we can change the duties to depend more upon them.”

(I wrote a piece about the effort about a year ago, here.)

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Mankato public safety director Todd Miller

So far, sworn or licensed volunteers have been used mainly at events, and they’ve trained with volunteer reservists, who aren’t necessarily licensed. But that’s changing. “What we do is when we have our monthly training, our full-time police training, we’re including our part-time officers in that,” said Miller. “They are training alongside the full-time officers.”

“We’re trying to bring up their whole level of training to match that of the full-time staff so they can be fairly seamless when we need them, so they can fit in,” he said. “We’re trying to fill them in, pairing them with a downtown patrol officer or letting them do that by themselves.”

If you’re wondering who is willing to walk the beat as an officer without being paid, Miller said the part-time ranks include an even split between retired cops and recent graduates “looking for experience to get a paid job.” Most, he said, “are actively looking for or planning to look for full-time employment.”

It’s harder to find a law enforcement job these days, said Neil Melton, executive director of the Minnesota Board of Peace Officer Standards and Training. While the overall number of officers has held fairly steady statewide, at just over 10,300, there are fewer being licensed for new jobs. Older police officers and sheriff’s deputies simply aren’t retiring at the same rate they used to, thanks to the struggling economy. “They are not leaving too many open spaces for new officers,” said Melton. “They are sticking around for a few more years due to health insurance costs and so forth. Often, they can retire in their 50s, depending on their plans. But a lot of them are saying, ‘I need to stick around.’”

Melton said there are currently around 2,000 eligible candidates statewide waiting to be hired, 25 percent more than there were five years ago. “The number of open positions is down,” he said. “In 2008, we awarded 600 licenses. It’s in the 300s at this time.”

“I feel bad for these young, eager people,” he said. “But the old gray hairs, the old dogs on the porch won’t get up and leave.”

Relying on volunteer officers who are actively looking for other jobs has its downsides. Mankato gets the hours for free, but it pays for training and an officer may leave at any time or fail to show up for a shift. Miller said at some point, he’d like to start paying sworn part timers, if the city can find the money in its budget. “It’s difficult when you’re dealing with volunteers to get them every time you need them,” he said. “If you pay them you can have more control.”

Melton views the Mankato arrangement as a “hybrid” of regular police work and the more typical and widespread use of volunteers for crowd control at events. “Many agencies across the state use community service officers, who are not sworn. They are the people at the airport in January saying, ‘Keep it moving, keep it moving.’ There is nothing illegal about [Mankato's volunteer officers]. Once they are licensed, once that has happened, if you can get somebody to work for free, God bless you. You are living the dream.”

He voiced reservations similar to Miller’s, however. “If they are fully trained, the poor employee isn’t earning anything but experience. The poor agency shells out money on a rotating basis, training them and then they leave. They’ll have to wait and see whether the investment is worth it.”

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