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Wanted: more police officers

Cloquet force is seven officers short


November 15, 2019

Jana Peterson

The Cloquet Police department faces staffing challenges caused by retirements, departures and officers who are on leave but still with the department.

The thin blue line is looking even thinner right now in Cloquet, as the police department faces staffing challenges caused by retirements, departures and officers who are on leave but still with the department.

At full strength, the Cloquet Police department is budgeted for a total of 24 licensed full-time police officers, detectives and command staff. They are currently down to 16 working officers, and only one (of three) working command staff.

"We have seven that are either gone or on leave, which is a third of our staff," acting police chief Derek Randall told the Pine Knot News.

In his staff report to the Cloquet city council Thursday, Nov. 7, Randall wrote that the "shortage of sworn personnel has created a crisis at the department regarding appropriate staffing levels, budgetary issues related to shift-replacement overtime, and a lack of staff to keep up with critical administrative duties."

Gone are officer Scott Beckman (the council negotiated his departure in December 2018) and detective Scott Holman (fired in June): both men were deemed to have past disciplinary issues that make it difficult for them to credibly testify in court. Also gone is police chief Jeff Palmer (who resigned in August after being on voluntary paid leave for four months) along with Erik Blesener, a school resource officer who retired recently after being on leave. Currently on long-term leave are commander Carey Ferrell, detective Daren Berg and officer Steve Fiske. Because of data privacy laws, the city cannot say why employees are on leave, just that they are.

New to the force are Andy Murray, hired in October 2018, and James Demko, who was approved by the council effective Tuesday, Nov. 12.

Demko is a "lateral" hire; he has experience (working for the Department of Corrections) so the city can skip the entry-level testing and reduce the field training process, Randall said, explaining that Demko will still go through a three-month field training program and a year's probationary period. The department is advertising for entry-level applicants as well, and Randall said he can fill two of the open spots, adding that they are currently backgrounding two other candidates before they start over with the entry-level applicants.

Demko's hire will help, but a number of vacancies remain, including the position at the top.

Since Palmer resigned, that job has been filled on an interim basis first by Ferrell (who has been on leave since mid-September after filling the interim chief role for six months) and now by Randall. The Cloquet city council has not advertised the police chief position, as they are waiting to hire a new city administrator so that person can be part of the police chief hiring process.

Randall can't replace any of the officers who are on leave, because he doesn't know if they are coming back.

"For us, the dilemma is whether they're retired or on leave or whatever; it's still vacancies that's been created on our shifts," the interim chief said.

Thus, instead of the ideal four shifts with three officers and a sergeant on each, some shifts are operating at the minimum staffing numbers of two during the day and three at night. They can cover that, but if someone calls in sick or takes vacation on those shifts, it's a challenge, Randall said.

Interim city administrator and city human resources director James Barclay said the department previously scheduled shifts with three people (two officers and a sergeant) but increased that number about 18 months ago.

Barclay explained that the city increased the shift numbers to allow for increased proactive patrol, so officers could do more proactively instead of always being reactive. It also gave them flexibility if someone was sick or out for training. Right now if someone is missing on the three-person shifts, they have to fill with overtime.

"From a public safety standpoint we are still good, and we are only going to get better," Barclay said.

The department is making it work, Randall stressed.

"I've asked for help from all the staff and so far everybody has stepped up," he said. "I think that's a testament to their pride in the department. They want to make sure we continue to do what need to do and provide services to our customers."

Every employee is being asked to do more with less, he said. Many of them are doing additional tasks they haven't necessarily done in the past; for example, sergeants are helping out with payroll and scheduling for the patrol officers that they each supervise. The three secretaries (two full-time, one part-time) also do some jobs that might have fallen to a police officer in the past: one has been through evidence technician training and is helping with intake and retention of evidence.

"We can still do the job, but trying to maintain balance and well-being is a concern, especially when you see these issues around the state," Randall said, referring to two police officers in the Twin Cities area who reportedly died by suicide on Nov. 6.

Interim police chief Derek Randall says they can still do their job, but with a third of the staff not actively working, it will wear down the active staff. He's making new hires but it's not a quick process.

In his staff report to the council, Randall noted that the CPD has no commanders and no detectives. Patrol officer Eric Baker is covering the investigations division and Officer Larry Sherk was reassigned to the school resource officer position. In addition, the department's K-9, Vader, and its handler, Officer Lacy Silgjord, have been assigned to a specific shift, rather than rotating through shifts as is normally preferred.

The interim chief is planning to move another person to investigations on a temporary assignment; the internal application period for that job just closed.

Randall pointed out that it will help to have someone else in investigations, but with staffing levels this low he called it a "shell game."

"These changes will have a systemic effect through the ranks," he said. "If we pull an officer from patrol, we will likely have to make changes to the patrol shift."

On the plus side, Randall sees a lot of room for growth, as both a department and individually. Officers will have opportunities to advance, and the department can move forward ... once they get out of crisis mode.

"We have huge potential. We have good employees, good equipment and the majority of the community is behind us when we do the right things," he said. "We are a diamond in the rough."


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