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Chief candidates meet the public

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Monday was a busy day for the three candidates eager to become Hastings' next police chief. First, the three candidates sat down for second interviews with three representatives from the city.

Then, later Monday, the candidates met the public during an open house at City Hall.

The candidates are Wayne Hicks, a sergeant with the Hastings Police Department; Rick Mathwig, the interim chief of police in Roseville; and Paul Schnell, the public information officer with the St. Paul Police Department.

At the open house, candidates introduced themselves, and then answered questions from the audience. City Administrator Dave Osberg moderated the forum.

Osberg first asked the candidates to inform residents about their distinctive characteristics, and a little bit of information about their biographies.

Mathwig answered first. He said his 22 years in law enforcement have covered "nearly all facets" of policing. He was a patrol officer, a patrol supervisor, and a captain and is now an acting chief, a position he has held for eight months.

"I took a good department, and I think I made it better," he said.

He said a planning meeting held at the department in January has led to goals within the department, including a quest to have 5 percent more traffic contacts this year.

He also explained why, if he is an interim chief, he would be looking for a new job. One year ago, the Roseville fire chief retired. Last fall, the police chief retired. With those two vacancies, the city manager has begun exploring the idea of a public safety department. That hasn't materialized yet, and when the Hastings position became available, he wanted to explore it.

Mathwig said his father was a small business owner, selling insurance in a southwestern Minnesota downtown area. His mother was a teacher.

Hicks said his strong ties to the Hastings community make him a distinctive candidate. He was born here, graduated from Hastings High School and came to the force as a part-time officer back in 1992.

"I'm the hometown candidate," he said. "I know Hastings. I care about Hastings."

Hicks said he has worked with businesses across the city, and has worked closely with the schools as a DARE officer and the school liaison officer.

He said after the incident at Columbine, he began meeting with school officials one to two times a year to talk about safety and what the schools would do if a similar incident were to occur here.

When one did occur here in April involving a student and a handgun, school officials knew what to do, and the situation was diffused without incident.

Schnell said his mix of experiences make him a distinctive candidate.

First, he grew up in a small farming community in northeastern Wisconsin.

"Don't hold that against me," he joked with the audience.

He came to Minnesota for college and stayed. Schnell began his law enforcement career as a social worker on the corrections side of law enforcement. He did prevention work with at-risk youths and later with adults when he was working with a home monitoring program.

Later he was a deputy with Carver County, and then he earned a spot as a patrol officer for the St. Paul Police Department. He moved up in St. Paul and has held a number of positions there.

Osberg asked candidates how they would deal with drug abuse by minors in the community.

It was Hicks' turn to go first.

"We'd be denying it if we said it wasn't a problem," he said.

"The DARE program is one step," Hicks said, "But it's a small step." Hicks is with students for 10 weeks during their fifth-grade year at school.

"My effect is low," he said.

He said the program is important, though, because it begins a relationship between students and the police department. The HPD having an office at the high school and the middle school is also an important part of prevention.

Hicks said he has taken high-risk students on trips to the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, another step in prevention.

Schnell said he agreed with Hicks in that education is important. Also important is using the community's resources and using those resources to intervene as early as possible.

"When we see smoke, are we addressing the issue," he asked. "We will never arrest our way out of the drug problem."

Mathwig said young people in the community need a positive self-image and positive contacts with the police department.

That positive self image will help them make the right decisions, and those positive contacts would make it more likely that young people will flag down an officer if there's trouble.

Mathwig also said he and the staff at the Roseville Police Department have worked hard to come up with places for young people to go after school before their parents return from work. He cited a homework shop that was set up as one successful example of this.

Osberg then asked candidates if they believed in the spirit of the law, or the letter of the law.

It was Schnell's turn to go first. He said there are times when following the letter of the law is "fundamentally important." He said, though, that good policing follows the spirit of the law, but only when the situation warrants it.

"Discretion as a police officer goes down as severity goes up," he said.

Mathwig said he thinks first about what the harmful effect of the matter is, first and foremost. In cases where there is personal injury, for example, the letter of the law is more important.

Officers are trained, he said, at dispute resolution, and that training should be put to good use. If an ultimate goal of policing in a certain circumstance is to reduce noise from a party, officers can accomplish this without issuing citations.

Hicks said he was "all for discretion." He also said that when the officer is enforcing the letter of the law, he should treat others like he'd like to be treated.

Officers also have to know the people they serve. If the same house generates a noise complaint every weekend, it should be approached differently than a one-time offender, Hicks said.

Osberg next asked candidates how they would handle criticism from the public and the media.

Mathwig went first, and said criticism should be viewed as a gift.

"You should learn from it, and grow from it," he said.

That criticism ultimately means the public is engaged in conversation with the department, and that's always a good thing, he said.

Hicks agreed with Mathwig in that criticism is a gift.

Schnell ultimately agreed as well, saying officers and police departments are in place because of residents, who pay their salaries. Those residents need to believe the department is there for the community's best interest. Second, he said being honest goes a long way, too, to handling criticism.

"When mistakes are made, we need to own them," he said. "That's where trust is made."

Later, Osberg asked about each candidate's perspectives on the conceal and carry legislation in Minnesota.

Schnell went first.

"Firearms do create safety issues, but not by those lawfully carrying them," he said. "The reality is there is a constitutional amendment" saying it is OK for residents to bear arms, and the state legislature passed the conceal and carry legislation.

Mathwig said that "by and large, the folks who are carrying concealed weapons don't cause problems."

Hicks agreed with their stances and said one aspect the city could consider is partnering with businesses to work on providing training for those interested in carrying a concealed weapon.

Lastly, Osberg asked the candidates what makes an effective chief of police, and why they'd be the right person for the job.

Mathwig said a good chief listens to his community, hears the concerns and then gets to work to make the community a better place to live.

He thinks of the position as servant-based, saying he'd talk to "anybody, anywhere, anytime about anything."

Hicks said integrity, responsibility and professionalism are among the keys. Hicks commended the recently adopted core values at the city as well. The chief should also be enthusiastic and encourage employees to have fun at work.

"If you have happier employees, they'll be better employees," he said.

Schnell said: "I want the officers who serve this community ... to have a sense of pride to wear the uniform," , and he said he wants the community to have pride in their department.

With an annual budget of $4 million, Schnell wants to be able to, at the end of the day, sit in front of the city council and say: "This is what your money bought you."

"It's not rocket science," he said. "It's hard work ... and I want to be part of it."