“Trying to hire police officers is getting increasingly difficult. I have never seen it as bad,” said Jeff Spiess, the new chief of the St. Anthony Police Department. “We used to get 200 applicants for a posting, and recently we only got one.”
Responding to what is also a serious nationwide recruitment challenge, Spiess and the City of St. Anthony have launched a new police cadet program to attract quality candidates.
Police officers across the country, including those in Minnesota, have left, retired or taken stress leave. Factors include the coronavirus pandemic and public backlash after the Minneapolis Police murder of George Floyd.
The St. Anthony City Council-approved cadet program offers candidates law enforcement educational support, including scholarships, and up to 25 hours per week of on-the-job training. Cadets are paired with veteran police and community relations officers who provide guidance and encouragement. Pending successful completion of the program, maintaining a satisfactory GPA and position availability, cadets are tracked to become police officers. Spiess modeled it on similar initiatives in Bloomington, Brooklyn Park, St. Louis Park, Eden Prairie and Minneapolis.
So far, St. Anthony has trained two cadets, both in their early 20s. The first, Keeton Roden, completed training and recently became a police officer. The second cadet, Gaelen Smith, began in July 2023, and is nearly finished with the program.
“The cadet program is like a long interview process,” said Spiess. “Every officer gets to interact with them, some for 20 hours a week, and over a month or year. We get that feedback and ask, ‘Is this someone who can meet the expectations?’ If the answer is ‘yes,’ then we are more willing to invest.”
Cadet duties can include traffic/parking enforcement, equipment maintenance, crime prevention, transporting people or evidence, and animal control. They also help with community engagement during Night to Unite or Coffee with a Cop and learn computer systems and area geography which expedites later training.
They are immersed in police culture and in the community, but are not stopping cars, arresting people or responding to serious calls, Spiess emphasized.
As part of the process, cadets visit all the city departments, not just within the police, but also the fire department and the municipal liquor stores so they see how the organizations work together.
The first cadets
Gaelen Smith is enrolled at the University of Northwestern in St Paul and is set to get a Bachelor of Science degree in 2024 in law enforcement/criminal justice. After his cadet training, he intends to become an officer.
“The ride-alongs, DUI assistance or transporting someone to jail helps to temper you into someone who’s ready and willing,” he commented. “I understand it’s hard emotionally if someone’s unhappy or having their worst day. But it’s good exposure for me. I like to step out of my comfort zone. At first it was difficult, but now I know the steps, and the officers are always willing to help.”
Keeton Roden, age 22, is now a St. Anthony officer. He previously worked with the Minneapolis Park Police and graduated in the law enforcement, peace officer pathway through Hennepin Technical College in Brooklyn Park.
Roden said, “Ever since I was growing up, I wanted to get involved in law enforcement. … There are plenty of people in it for the right reasons — and I use that as my motivation. I would like to spark change.”
“The cadet program is good,” he continued. “I know my way around and with that comes confidence. I want to be an officer the community can trust, who’s empathetic and knows how to handle a situation for the best. I realize the uniform can turn people off, but as a human I’m here to help. The big thing is going out and finding things, rather than having them come to you.”
Asked about feedback so far, Roden said, “Everyone asks how old I am. But with the calls involving juveniles, sometimes they’re more willing to talk to someone my age. St. Anthony is a good community that appreciates law enforcement.”
Spiess, a champion of the cadet program, has been with St. Anthony in advancing capacities since 1995. He attended Northeast Middle School and Edison High School, so he knows the neighborhood. He was named chief in late 2023 after the retirement of former Chief Jon Mangseth.
Asked about crime in Northeast, Spiess said that while it’s not a crisis, there has been an increase in vehicle and commercial theft, including shoplifting. “No city is immune from crime. We advise residents to have a healthy awareness and to report suspicious activity.”
“The biggest concerns for me right now as a new police chief are officer recruitment and retention,” he said. “Our number one goal is public safety — this is the hallmark of our mission — but we can’t do that if we can’t attract high quality people.”
Spiess and St. Anthony may have particular challenges. More than seven years ago in 2016 a former St. Anthony Police Department officer, Jeronimo Yanez, killed Philando Castile, a 32-year-old Black man, during a traffic stop in Falcon Heights, which had contracted St. Anthony for police services. Yanez was acquitted of manslaughter charges and no longer works for the police.
This incident and nationwide police-citizen issues and fatalities have prompted a series of policing reforms. At St. Anthony, these include body-worn cameras, monthly internal compliance checks and prioritizing traffic safety vs. enforcement.
According to policy, all police personnel have a duty to intervene if they see someone, including fellow officers, do something unethical. “It’s part of the scenario training,” says Spiess. “I don’t think everyone appreciates how seriously we take that.”
In addition, the department implemented an officer wellness program. “When someone calls 911,” Spiess elaborated, “they expect that a healthy, well-balanced officer is going to respond. We owe this to the community. … If we don’t have high-quality officers, people don’t trust us, and we don’t have legitimacy.”
While to recruit, for example in Ely, Minn., is offering $3,800 Kevlar canoes to new police candidates, St. Anthony is relying on their recruitment team, word-of-mouth from the officers and innovative ways to connect — including the cadet program.
Spiess says, “One of our biggest attractions is our culture. We want to get people here to actually see how we operate and why we have a high retention rate. … And there’s always room for improvement.”