Foley builds police department from the ground up

Published 2:39 pm Tuesday, June 26, 2012

FOLEY, Minn. (AP) — When the Foley City Council voted earlier this year to bring its police force back from the dead, it chose Hal Henning to do the job.

Henning, a police officer in Gilbert, had a long list of things to do — buy cars and uniforms, computers and radios and equip the officers who would patrol the city streets for the first time since its former police department was disbanded in 2003.

What he chose to do first shows how much has changed since Foley did away with its old police department almost 10 years ago:

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Henning created a Facebook page.

“We didn’t have phones. We didn’t have desks. We didn’t have anything,” Henning said. “This was the way that I found that I could communicate with the community and still give some public service.”

From a modest beginning on the world’s most popular social networking site, Henning began to piece together the police department that this weekend welcomed its new chief, Brant Standridge, just in time for Foley Fun Days.

In doing so, Foley bucked an undeniable trend in the last 10 years that has seen dozens of towns throughout Minnesota disband or merge their police departments, or contract with a sheriff’s office for police protection.

At least 35 police departments have disbanded or consolidated between 2003 and 2010. And since 1987, at least 130 Minnesota police departments have disbanded, according to the League of Minnesota Cities.

Neither the League of Minnesota Cities nor the state Peace Officer Standards and Training board maintained lists of police departments recently created.

With virtually no recent blueprint for constructing a modern police department — and after telling the City Council he could build one in 10 weeks — Henning let a few principles guide him.

“I made a list and decided that if we’re going to build it, build it right,” he said. “I think it was just a lot of common sense. All you need to do if you’re building a department is to take a look at what the needs of the community are and fit those needs with the appropriate building blocks.”

Before the City Council voted to give Henning the power to oversee creation of a department that will have a $229,000 annual budget, he had done his homework. He had provided the council with options for police service for Foley that included detailed cost estimates for each plan.

He had researched cities of comparable population, some that were also county seats, and some that were near larger cities like Foley is to St. Cloud. He knew what those cities had for service call loads, how many officers they had and what their budgets were.

He looked at Olivia, Glenwood, Granite Falls, Bagley, Canby and Renville.

The City Council chose Henning’s plan for a department with a chief and two officers.

Henning started work March 2, a Friday. The following Monday he bought a uniform and affixed to his shirt one of the old Foley Police Department patches he found on some old jackets in storage.

Using his own vehicle, he now could respond to non-emergency calls in the city while continuing to assemble the equipment the department needed. A philosophical crossroads came with his first major purchase: Should the city get a used patrol car or a new one?

And in a town where the only car dealer sells Chevrolets, should he come back with a different brand for the most recognizable vehicle in town?

He wanted the department’s first car to be new. And he wanted it to be a Chevy Caprice, he decided.

“We can go out and buy a $3,500 junker from another jurisdiction’s old squad pile and put some equipment on it,” he would say later. “But what about when that $3,500 squad needs a $3,500 transmission, what do we do? What about when it needs a new (rooftop) light bar because the used one fails and then do we put a $1,500 light bar on a $3,500 car with a $3,500 transmission?”

But to really move forward, he needed more direction from the council — and the authority to spend its money.

He got that March 6, when the council voted 4-1 to give him and city administrator Sarah Brunn the authority to spend the money to outfit the new department and hire part-time officers to take calls until permanent officers could be hired.

He eventually hired a Crow Wing County deputy, a Wright County correctional officer and a Glencoe police officer.

He didn’t want to hire part-time people with no experience because he didn’t have time to train them and build a department at the same time. He needed people who could hit the ground running.

“If somebody called 911, the last thing I wanted was someone to show up and not know what to do, because now we’ve completely defeated everything we’ve worked for,” he said. “I didn’t want this thing to be a joke. I wanted this to be taken seriously. I wanted this to be a fantastic agency that took care of its people, right out of the gate.”

At the early March meeting, Henning also sought direction on the role of a public safety committee made up of community members.

“One of the biggest things we agreed on early is that we wanted to have community involvement in this police department,” Henning said. “And that we wanted the citizens to feel like they had a say.”

The role of the committee remained a point of contention between citizens, council and Henning.

But with the new authority to spend, he was able to move forward. He relied on his networking skills, collaboration with surrounding agencies and experience to find part-time officers and affordable, quality equipment.

At the same time, he sought to mend old wounds from battles between county and city officials over policing Foley. It was another crossroads, and Henning chose to look forward to the possibilities rather than at the troubles of the past.

And he sought the advice of area law enforcement. He repeatedly stressed that building Foley’s police department wasn’t about him, but was about a cooperative, team effort.

“A lot of it is asking questions,” Henning said. “I tapped into the law enforcement community in the area and got a lot of help.”

The contract for the first squad car was through a state leasing contract and maintenance is included in the $653 monthly payment. He spent about $12,500 to equip the vehicle and saved some money by buying a showroom-demo light bar and siren.

The Benton County Sheriff’s Office offered portable radios for the part-time officers who he initially hired temporarily, and he obtained a $1,000 grant from the Central Minnesota Emergency Medical Services Region for more communication equipment.

“We were taking calls within seven days from when we got the car,” Henning said.

There were trips to Best Buy, Office Depot and Staples for office furniture and equipment. Minco was the choice for computers for the chief and the two officers who the council had approved hiring. That bill was about $3,600, while the tab for three Tasers and nine cartridges was about $2,670.

Meanwhile, in mid-March the council appointed two council members and seven community members to a public safety committee. The committee was to advise the council on job descriptions and the hiring process.

By the end of April, he had spent about $29,000 on the equipment and other expenses of the new department. That was above the monthly average outlined in the $229,000 annual budget, but the department had the savings of not spending anything in the first three months of the year.

That savings also allowed him to focus on quality when buying equipment. That philosophy, he believed, would help attract higher-quality officer candidates who will stay on the job longer, rather than turning the department into a training ground for officers who soon leave for better departments.

“You have to give them a place where they want to work. How do you do that? Good equipment, good training and a happy work environment,” he said. “Give them the pride in their department. Do you feel better as an officer when you roll up to a call knowing that everything you’re going to need to do for that call to help that person who called for you is in that patrol car? Or do you want to go up and say you’re sorry but you can’t help them because you don’t have the equipment. That doesn’t look professional when you are on scene and someone needs your help.”

Katie Lang and Brian Murphy came aboard in May as the first two officers hired by the city. Henning applied for the chief’s position, although he said at the time that he was happy with his job in Gilbert. He was not among the three finalists announced in early May for the Foley chief’s position.

Public safety committee member and Foley resident Leslie Schumacher voiced her disappointment with that development.

“I’m just stating my disappointment, how that has concluded,” she said at the time of the finalists announcement. “I hope that process provides with a very good, high-quality police chief that’s as good as he is.”

The council voted May 9 to offer the chief’s job to Standridge, an officer in the White Earth Police Department. Standridge’s first day as Foley’s chief was Saturday.

Officers Lang and Murphy were sworn in May 15 and spent their first days going through the training required to get state certification. Now Henning had the two officers his plan called for, but he was far from done.

There were more bills for equipment and supplies, for officers’ physical and psychological evaluations and for uniforms and guns.

Henning did allow a few corners to be cut when picking the second squad car, which was picked up a little more than a week ago. And yes, it is another Chevy, this one an Impala.

Henning was able to get a $1,500 radar used from the State Patrol for $200. The company that outfitted the first squad gave Foley a used cage for the second squad, a savings of $1,200, a used center console that saved $600 and light bars for the rear window that saved another $200.

He got a Breathalyzer free from Safe & Sober that saved several hundred dollars.

Standridge praised Henning’s efforts at building for the future while being a good steward of public dollars.

“I think what he has done is build the foundation of what needs to be established. I think he has laid some really good groundwork for me to walk into,” Standridge said. “And I think he has done a great job of putting the startups together and now I hope to be able to step in and continue on with what he was building.”

And this weekend, Henning turned over to Standridge a professional and equipped — yet still growing — police department.

“People are asking, how did you do this? I didn’t do this. We all did,” Henning said. “I couldn’t have gotten this up and running in 10 weeks without help.”

And what about those who thought it couldn’t be done, he was asked.

“I think there were a lot of non-believers,” he said, laughing. “There were a lot of people who thought there was no way I was going to get it up and running in 10 weeks. And that was my determination to prove them wrong.”