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Preferred qualifications to be a police officer in Hastings may change

In July, an officer at the Hastings Police Department left the force. Since then, Hastings Chief of Police Paul Schnell has been at work to fill his position. Before posting the job, though, Schnell wanted to take a long, hard look at the preferred qualifications for the position.

He is hoping to change some of the preferences for the position, and also for any leadership positions within the department.

What he is proposing, though, isn't exactly being endorsed by the department's officers.

When Schnell posts the job opening, he is hoping to add four-year degrees to the list of preferred qualifications. That would be a diversion from what the department has done in the past, where they've simply stated in job postings that applicants must be eligible to be licensed in the state of Minnesota.

So why make the change?

First, the marketplace allows for such a change now, Schnell said.

"There are a lot of great candidates out there," he said. "We're in a marketplace where four-year degrees are plentiful."

Second, Schnell and the Hastings Public Safety Advisory Commission hope to make four-year degrees a requirement for advancement within the department. Officers can get promoted to sergeant, then lieutenant, then chief. If an officer is hired without a four-year degree, he or she wouldn't be able to grow within the department.

By hiring officers with four-year degrees, the HPD?could avoid having to turn down someone for a promotion just because they don't have the right degree.

"You'd have people who worked hard, and were great officers, but were excluded from being able to compete for promotional opportunities," Schnell said.

Third, the job of being a police officer is getting to be more complex, he said.

"This also recognized the increasing complexities of the job," he said. "It addresses the demands for writing - those writing skills are becoming an expectation in this line of work. It's far more scrutinized in civil and criminal processes."

These changes haven't been approved yet. Schnell plans to bring the job descriptions to the city council sometime in October to discuss the changes with them. In the meantime, members of the local police officer's union, the Law Enforcement Labor Services, have drafted a letter in opposition to the changes. The union steward is Tim Connell, and he signed the letter on behalf of the LELS membership.

In the letter, Connell writes that the Minnesota Peace Officer Standards and Training board has three minimum educational requirements for licensure as an officer in the state. They require a two-year degree, nine core law enforcement classes and a skills curriculum. Connell writes that POST board standards should be the ones used by the city, too.

"The measure of any candidate's employability should not be limited in such a way that it excludes a viable applicant from pursuing employment with the City of Hastings," Connell writes. "Applicants who achieve the minimum academic requirements may have done so with specific career objectives in law enforcement and may well have invested countless volunteer hours in the practical aptitudes of their career.

"It would stand to reason that an individual whose field of emphasis is law enforcement specific and who has participated in academics and practical's in that field may be a more desirable applicant than a candidate that has simply achieved a four-year degree in an unrelated field."

Connell continued in the letter, stating that the hiring process should be inclusive, not exclusive.

"Hiring processes can be developed to have 'preference' accommodations which may include the acknowledgment of various desirable skills and abilities. Equating those skills, experience and abilities in a standardized form allows applicants from a wider pool to be considered in the hiring process.

"Experienced peace officers, veterans, two- and four- year degree holders and technical graduates could all be desirable applicants. The value of an applicant can easily be measured using as many available means as possible, considering age, experience, academics and expertise."

Schnell said one of his concerns is that officers with two-year degrees are taking the change personally. That's not his intent, he said.

"It's the right thing to do, but it's a hard change," Schnell said. "This is not to convey a message, at all, that a person with a two-year degree can't be an exceptional police officer. We have many people here with two-year degrees who are phenomenal police officers. This is about looking at our rank structure and making the requirements wholesale."

A changing workforce

Schnell said a major factor in his decision to make the change now is an aging group of leaders within the police department. Most law enforcement officials qualify for full retirement sometime in their early- to mid-50s, an age that every leader in the department is approaching.

Schnell is now 50 years old. It stands to reason he would retire in his mid-50s.

Just below him are lieutenants Joe Kegley and Jim Rgnonti and the department has six sergeants - Wayne Hicks, Rod Risch, Jim Galland, Craig Puch, Mike Munson and Steve Scharfe. All eight of them could retire over the next two to seven years.

"Most of the ranking members of the department are all in that 48- to 53-year-old range," Schnell said. "You can see that we're all about the same age, and that we have relatively similar years of service. Some could retire a little early. Some could go a little longer. But you can see there's going to be a big shift in leadership, and we want to prepare for that today."

So how is changing the requirements today preparing for tomorrow?

Schnell said that in making the changes now, he would be giving any officers who want a shot at promotion a chance to earn that four-year degree.

"(Doing this now) gives those who are here now and interested in promotion ample time to pursue that level of education," he said. "If we wait, and then you make these decisions when you're doing a promotion process, it creates a position where people say, 'I didn't know.'"

Supervisors need a four-year degree, Schnell said, because of the oversight that goes into their position.

"They run the police department during the off hours," he said. "They are running the shift. They are making resource decisions. They have the authority to make disciplinary decisions. They need to be able to identify training needs."

Other departments in the county have similar requirements in place, Schnell said. Burnsville, in fact, has it as a requirement that even patrol officers must have four-year degrees.

The next step

Schnell will be going to the city council in the near future to get their authorization to initiate the hiring process. The council will have to approve the new job descriptions in order for the changes to take effect.

At the same time, Schnell would present the council with revised job descriptions for the department's leadership positions. The council would be asked to vote to approve them as well.