Some Minnesota cops say they hide their badges, don’t wear uniforms in stores

At police conference, other cops say the tide is turning back their way

By: - July 20, 2022 6:00 am

Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images.

The president of the largest union representing Minnesota law enforcement stood in front of a roomful of more than 100 cops Tuesday and said she no longer wears her police uniform to the grocery store.

St. Cloud Police Lt. Lori Ellering harkened back to Sept. 12, 2001 — the day after the terrorist attacks on America — when police were respected, revered, showered with free food and thank you notes from school children.

“We were proud to wear our SCPD (coat) year-round, we were flying that blue line flag,” she said. 

In the two decades since, however, Americans have become more skeptical of police, as journalists began tracking the roughly 1,000 people killed every year by police. The Drug War and its attendant corruption and incarceration of Black men has also drawn closer scrutiny. 

“Now how many of you will go to the grocery store with anything police-related on it? Hell no,” Ellering said.

Ellering talked about the changing policing landscape during the Minnesota Police and Peace Officers Association’s violent crime summit. It was a day of commiserating, a safe space away from the jeers of activists and prying eyes of smart phones.  

Ramsey County Sheriff Bob Fletcher said he’s careful at restaurants — in case an anti-police activist is preparing his food — but still receives goodwill from the community.  

“And I’m finding people are very appreciative. As a matter of fact, I think things have turned, what I’m hearing is, ‘Thank you for your service.’ And so what I would suggest is don’t be afraid to wear a uniform to the grocery store, because if we’re ever going to turn this tide, we got to show them, we’re out there. We’re in the grocery stores. We’re just going about our lives. We’re normal people, just normal people.”

St. Paul Police Commander Jeff Stiff works off-duty at Whole Foods, where people are slowly warming up to the police presence. People whisper “Thank you,” he said.

Law enforcement officials talked about the challenges in policing, from not being able to chase suspects in squad cars in some places, to dealing with prosecutors and judges they say are too soft on crime.

Rep. Kelly Moller, DFL-Shoreview, who is a Hennepin County prosecutor, disagreed. Just as not all cops are like Derek Chauvin, she said, not every prosecutor is soft on crime.

Fletcher said the Ramsey County Workhouse has a capacity of 550, but only 65 people were there Tuesday because, he alleged, judges don’t send people there.

Fletcher, who’s been accused of grandstanding while in uniform on Facebook Live, said he’s collecting data on judges and sentencing and promised to go public in a year. He said he’s worked with the Hmong-American community for decades, and now the Somali-American community. He implored Minnesota to “integrate” Somali people into the “American way of life,” or police will be “chasing gang members for many years to come.”

St. Paul Police Federation President Mark Ross said he was born and raised in St. Paul, but when he saw smoke billowing over University Avenue during the riots after George Floyd’s police murder, he decided to move.

Ross said the most dangerous job he’s ever had was working as a school resource officer at Como Senior High School in St. Paul, “breaking up gang fights” daily.

Ross said SPPD is recovering more guns than ever, and responding to more shots fired than ever. 

Meanwhile, the department has been “defunded through attrition,” with about 560 cops. He said they should have about 620.

Ross said for the first time in the department’s history, fewer than 100 people took the police exam to try for about 70 openings. Maybe 30 people will eventually make it to an interview, he said.

He said St. Paul police don’t feel supported by elected officials or voters, and have been handcuffed by police brass over minor complaints for things like violating the pursuit or body camera policy.

“We need to encourage our cops to go out and be aggressive and chase bad guys,” Ross said.

(Criminologists are skeptical. Police pursuits are often deadly, and more than a quarter of the fatalities happen to innocent bystanders. Geoffrey Alpert, a criminologist at the University of South Carolina, told Slate that given the danger, “It has to be a serious offense to justify that risk.”)

Stiff said St. Paul is driving carjacking numbers down through police details, and is now offering services to families of arrestees with the help of “community moral voices” to try to keep people’s kids “out of the game.”  

“We all know there are 13- 14-year-old shooters right now,” he said.

Former St. Paul Police union president David Titus, who is now president of the MPPOA board of directors, said police officers are leaving after 10 to 15 years to go sell real estate. He said elected officials could help police by changing their negative rhetoric.

The police morale problem isn’t limited to the metro area, officers said. 

Ellering said St. Cloud, a city of 65,000, had 10 gunshot calls in 2020, and 40 so far this year. Four people were shot in an alley last week. Criminal suspects flee the Twin Cities for St. Cloud to hide, she said.

“Things have definitely changed,” she said.

Normally 200 people apply for openings; the last round only 10 applied, Ellering said. The department is now constantly hiring, she said.

Crystal Police Chief Stephanie Revering said violent crime has increased almost 30% in the past two years in her Minneapolis suburb. She said her community questions why a white woman carjacked in Edina gets more attention than crime in her more diverse community.  

Sen. Warren Limmer, R-Maple Grove, who chairs the Senate Judiciary and Public Safety Finance and Policy Committee, said crime is rippling out to his suburb, which “used to be a sleepy little town.”

Sen. Karla Bigham, DFL-Cottage Grove, said lawmakers need to think of crime as a moral — as opposed to a political — issue. And she said lawmakers need to “get our ass back to special session” and pass a public safety bill. Republicans and Democrats in the divided Legislature had pretty much agreed on a bill.

“Call (lawmakers) up and demand we finish the job,” she told the officers.

Moller said Democrats are ready to go back into a special session to vote for public safety measures.

Rep. Heather Edelson, DFL-Edina, agreed on the need for a special session.

“I wasted like six months of my life to not get a lot done,” she said.

Rep. Paul Novotny, R-Elk River, said most officers tell him they don’t want to work in a profession in which a mistake could lead to a murder charge.  

“Hopefully changes are coming where you don’t have to give up a career because of an honest mistake,” he said.

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Deena Winter
Deena Winter

Deena Winter has covered local and state government in four states over the past three decades, with stints at the Bismarck Tribune in North Dakota, as a correspondent for the Denver Post, city hall reporter in Lincoln, Nebraska, and regional editor for Southwest News in the western Minneapolis suburbs. Before joining the staff of the Reformer in 2021 she was a contributor to the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times. She and her husband have a daughter, son, and very grand child. In her spare time, she likes to play tennis, jog, garden and attempt to check out all the best restaurants in the metro area.