APD, city looking at ways of drawing police applicants

Published 6:52 pm Tuesday, December 7, 2021

Austin needs to hire police officers, but they aren’t getting the applications.

That was at the crux of a work session Monday night following the regular City Council meeting. Reflecting a problem across the state and the nation, the Austin Police Department has seen a steep downward trend in applicants in recent months.

For two open positions, APD received just one applicant. Police Chief David McKichan told council members that this is emblematic of what many departments are seeing.

“Right now, we are faced with a scenario that I do feel will go on for a couple years,” McKichan said. “Hiring officers, finding candidates is a struggle for all agencies. I’m aware of one department that got zero response.”

There is also a shortage of numbers in the student ranks, as fewer are enrolling in law enforcement programs.

While nothing was decided Monday night, both McKichan and Human Resources Director Trish Weichmann advocated for doing away with the 30-minute response time as a way to lure more applicants to the city.

Austin is one of the few departments in the area that still has a response time, requiring officers to live within a 30-minute drive of the community.

Weichmann told the council that at least one applicant withdrew his application because he was aware he would be living outside of that 30-minute requirement.

If the council chose to do away with the requirement, then more population centers would hopefully open up, deepening Austin’s own applicant pool.

“At least it would put us on an even playing field with other communities,” Weichmann said. “Our request is to remove the 30 minute response time completely.”

During the ensuing conversation, the council seemed receptive to the idea and included possible incentives that might coax officers to move into the community.

Councilwoman Joyce Poshusta said that she’s heard concerns in the past of officers not living in the community, but ultimately said she doesn’t see much of a problem in doing away with the requirement.

“We help the quality and the quantity that we get,” Poshusta said. “There’s been some concern, talking in the past, of having our officers live in the community. Even if we get officers that are outside our response time, they are very involved in our community.”

Councilman Mike Postma, though tentatively supportive of abolishing the 30-minute response times, did bring up concerns of officers not being a part of the community they serve and not creating that bond.

“I struggled with this one a little bit,” Postma said. “I don’t like forcing folks to quote-unquote, live in our city, but I don’t think 30 minutes is unreasonable. I don’t know if this is going to get us a ton of applicants. I struggle with the idea of not having officers live in Austin.”

Talk eventually shifted toward the possible incentives in getting officers to apply. This broke down into two avenues:

• Referral incentive: A City of Austin employee that refers somebody, who then applies and who is successful, would result in the employee receiving the incentive.

• Student loan reimbursement: Any applicants who can prove they have student loan debts coming out of college would receive up to $5,000 in load reimbursement. $2,500 would be paid on a successful hire with the remaining $2,500 being paid upon completion of the year-long probationary period.

That second incentive could also, in theory, be pivoted to established officers moving to Austin, but instead of loan reimbursement it would be applied toward moving expenses.

“I don’t see schools producing enough students to fill slots in southeastern Minnesota,” McKichan reasoned.

Still, the goal remains making sure officers are a part of the community in some manner.

“The goal is not just hiring officers,” Councilman Oballa Oballa said. “In the end they have to connect to the community.”

In other news:

• It was announced that on top of the second round of $1.3 million in American Recovery Plan dollars coming in 2022, the City of Austin will receive an extra $43,718.90 in ARP funding. The money comes from $12.7 million in ARP funds allocated to the State of Minnesota that went unclaimed.

•The City’s Truth in Taxation meeting is 6 p.m. Wednesday night in the City Council Chambers.