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Several police departments in Twin Cities suburbs are embarking on plans to beef up their ranks in the coming years, setting up competition for hiring as the pool of would-be police officers remains small.

Minnetonka and Edina each want to hire six officers in 2024. Golden Valley may look to add three officers in the coming years, once it fills the remaining 12 vacant positions in its budgeted cadre of 31. Richfield has hired a consultant to study possible expansion.

Across the state, 250 agencies are looking to hire officers right now, according to Law Enforcement Labor Services, a police union representing officers in many suburban and outstate police departments.

All this comes as Minneapolis grapples with a police force that has dropped to historic lows.

"There's a significant shortage of police officers coming into the pipeline to fulfill the high demand that currently exists across the state," said former St. Paul Police Chief Todd Axtell, who now consults with departments about staffing. "Everybody's competing for the same pool of candidates."

Fewer young people want to become officers, Law Enforcement Labor Services executive director Jim Mortenson said. And more officers have been taking early retirements over the past decade as police have come under greater scrutiny in Minnesota and across the country.

Broader labor market trends are also contributing to a shortage, said Ronal Serpas, a criminal justice professor at Loyola University New Orleans who spent 34 years in law enforcement including as chief of police in Nashville and New Orleans.

"It's hard to hire teachers, it's hard to hire nurses, it's hard to hire a lot of people these days," Serpas said. "Recruiting is difficult. It's never easy."

Crime rates and hiring

Minnetonka's push to expand its Police Department is not a response to any increase in crime, which police say has remained more or less steady for years.

Rather, Chief Scott Boerboom said, he sees a need for more officers so police can spend more time with victims and get to know Minnetonka's growing number of residents.

More officers don't necessarily deter crime, Boerboom said, but increasing staff would "make sure you have adequate coverage and good response time."

A consultant's report suggested adding 15 officers and civilians to its 58-officer department in the next few years, and Minnetonka will start with hiring six next year.

Some of those officers will deal primarily with retail theft at the Ridgedale mall, and two will specialize in responding to mental health crises.

The number of police need not stay fixed, Boerboom said, especially if mental health crises are someday assigned to some other part of government or civil society.

"Until someone else can step into that role, we have to be prepared," he said.

Richfield Police Chief Jay Henthorne is eyeing expansion, too. This month, the City Council approved a contract with Axtell's consulting firm, the Axtell Group, to study Richfield's police staffing needs.

The number of police in Richfield has not changed much since the 1970s, according to city meeting documents. Henthorne declined to further discuss what he hoped to learn from the study.

The way Axtell sees it, more officers may be needed even if crime appears low.

People may not bother calling police for low-level property crimes like thefts from a car if officers are too busy to respond quickly or respond at all, he said. Sometimes busy police will "advise" instead of taking a report, Axtell said. So understaffed departments may not reflect the rate of crime that is actually happening.

"You can't base staffing decisions solely on reported crime trends," he said.

The Axtell Group completed a study in Burnsville this year that recommended adding 8.5 officers. Burnsville is proposing to add four positions to the Police Department in 2024, for a total of 103 officers and staff.

Where to find officers?

Boerboom said he has seen for himself the sharp decline in the number of people who want to become police officers. A 2017 job opening drew some 500 applicants, he said, while a posting that closed last week drew only 24.

Boerboom said he believes Minnetonka can draw good candidates. "We find we are getting a lot of current officers who are interested in working for a city like Minnetonka."

Patterns of movement differ from department to department.

Across the country, Serpas said, it's relatively common for officers to start their careers in a big city, get training and experience there, then shift to a suburb that might pay better and have more new equipment.

A slower pace of work might also be attractive, he said.

"You get to have more of a close relationship with your community," Serpas said.

Mortenson said he thought officers might be inclined to chase higher pay, and seek a department where they might be under less scrutiny from residents, police leadership and city government. Suburbs and smaller towns might offer a more comfortable environment, he said.

But Boerboom said most of his officers are coming into Minnetonka from more rural departments seeking more activity, and he said he rarely recruits Minneapolis police. Others come from out of state. And Minnetonka is one of several west metro departments experimenting with a police cadet program.

Cadets sign up with Minnetonka police, and the city pays for two years of postsecondary education.

Axtell said programs that can attract "homegrown talent" will be key as the pool of possible police dwindles. It will also be important for cities to help potential officers clear financial barriers that could make it harder for them to meet educational requirements.

"It's critically important for law enforcement agencies to continue their outreach efforts in their communities," he said.

Star Tribune staff writer Erin Adler contributed to this story.