Opinion editor's note: Editorials represent the opinions of the Star Tribune Editorial Board, which operates independently from the newsroom.
What could have been a groundbreaking Minnesota police recruitment bill regrettably fell victim to last-minute gridlock at the State Capitol.
But the effort may have opened the door to national legislation that would shine a well-deserved spotlight on a Minnesota program called "Pathways to Policing." The program, used at police departments in Bloomington, Roseville and elsewhere, removes barriers to nontraditional candidates, allowing them to seek new careers in law enforcement.
U.S. Rep. Dean Phillips, a Democrat who represents Minnesota's Third Congressional District, told an editorial writer that he has been on ride-alongs with beat officers, talked to police chiefs and members of the communities he represents. "The overwhelming message from all corners is the growing challenge in recruiting principled young men and women to serve in law enforcement. Pathways to Policing came up as a best-in-class idea."
Phillips took the proposal to his Problem Solvers Caucus, a bipartisan group of representatives committed to looking for common ground, and found support among Democrats — including Minnesota Rep. Angie Craig — and Republicans.
Rep. Pete Meijer, R-Mich., said in a recent statement that he was joining Phillips because "law enforcement departments around the country are struggling to retain officers and recruit new ones, even as our communities continue to face increased rates of violent crime. It is critical that we provide adequate funding and resources to encourage more people, especially those who live in the communities they would serve, to become police officers."
In short, Phillips' bill would provide $50 million for the U.S. Department of Justice to begin a nationwide recruitment campaign and another $50 million to create and operate a national version of "Pathways to Policing," used here since 2016 to attract nontraditional candidates into law enforcement careers.
Admittedly, that is a very modest start, but it is something to build on.
It should be noted that Minnesota Senate Republicans had proposed a $65 million statewide expansion of the Pathways program earlier this year. The program works, in part, by giving candidates a chance to switch careers to law enforcement while still earning money. They are given additional preferences if they are fluent in needed languages. They must have a two-year accredited degree, but it can be in any field of study. The proposed expansion in Minnesota would have provided funding for tuition reimbursement, grants and other recruitment and retention incentives.
The failure of that proposal to pass in Minnesota, Phillips said, "is all the more reason to do it nationally. This is a way to get money to departments in Minnesota and across the country that want to reach out for a different type of law enforcement recruit.
"This is not about increasing quantity necessarily, but about improving the quality of new recruits," he said. The departments that have used the program "have been very pleased," he said. The Justice Department recruitment campaign is equally important, he said. "We need to restore policing as an honorable, principled profession that will attract honorable, principled candidates. That is essential to improving law enforcement in this country."
Phillips' bill would give $50 million to the Department of Justice to lead national marketing and recruitment campaigns similar to successful military enlistment efforts. The department also would be required to share resources in support of campaigns run by state and local agencies.
Priority for state and local grants would go to departments that try to recruit candidates from underserved communities or with nontraditional education or career backgrounds and candidates willing to live in the communities they would serve.
In rolling out his proposal recently, Phillips was accompanied by state and local law enforcement leaders. Among them was Minnesota Public Safety Commissioner John Harrington, who said that first responders across the state had told him that "they did not have enough people to answer the calls that were coming in ... . Whether it is mental health calls, calls around carjacking, what we've all seen is this increased volume of need," he said. "And what we have not seen is the resources necessary to respond to that need."
A key element for Phillips is that departments would have to apply for the funds, detail how they intended to use the money, show they can administer the programs and provide means of accountability and ways to measure success.
"We've seen in Minnesota that when these programs are well administered and deployed, it can make a huge difference," Phillips said. "Just as hiring one bad apple can affect a whole department, hiring a good one will also have ripple effects. We have had a handful of people cast a shadow on an entire profession. That is a terribly important pattern to break."