Minneapolis residents question why MPD guards work sites for Michels Corp.

The company is owned by Tim Michels, a Trump-endorsed candidate for Wisconsin governor

By: - September 20, 2022 8:18 am

Off-duty MInneapolis Police officer Hector Bugarin does off-duty work monitoring a Michels construction site in the Minnehaha neighborhood on September 20, 2022. Nicole Neri/Minnesota Reformer

Some Minneapolis residents aren’t happy that off-duty Minneapolis police officers are guarding construction sites for a company owned by Tim Michels, a Trump-style Republican who’s running for governor of Wisconsin.

Michels co-owns Michels Corporation, a family-owned energy and infrastructure contractor based in Brownsville, Wisconsin. He has spent over $12 million on his campaign and won the GOP primary after getting endorsed by former President Donald Trump.

His ubiquitous Michels work trucks are drawing the attention of Minneapolis residents, while also raising questions about MPD officers’ frequent uniformed off-duty work amidst robust on-duty overtime — and an officer shortage.

Dimitri Drekonja, a doctor who runs or bikes to work at the Minneapolis VA Health Care System daily, noticed Michels workers doing gas line work this summer, accompanied by Minneapolis Police Department squad cars and officers.

Why, he wondered, are the police expending precious resources guarding construction sites? In the past two years, the department has lost about 350 officers — dropping from about 900 cops to 550 — which it has blamed for slower response times.

MPD spokesman Howie Padilla said in an email “it appears that these instances are officers working off-duty for contracted entities.” Officers working off-duty gigs can immediately leave the post and spring into action to go on duty for MPD if a crime is witnessed or if MPD needs their help. 

The arrangement benefits “residents, businesses and visitors,” he said.

“Among them are the obvious benefits of having additional eyes and ears on the streets beyond scheduled patrol and other sworn officers,” he said. “In short, these situations allow for more officers in the area.”

Michels has not responded to a request for comment.

City Council Member Emily Koski’s policy aide, Corinne Horowitz, reached out to the mayor’s office and the Third Precinct police inspector, and was told the officers are off duty, and were hired privately to assist with traffic or security.

Drekonja is puzzled as to why police would be needed to provide security for the workers.

“I run there each morning, and pass through neighborhoods that I know well as pretty quiet; definitely not areas of high crime on the Minneapolis Police crime maps,” he wrote to Koski.

“It seems very strange that at a time when the mayor, the new public safety commissioner, and the media are all talking about Minneapolis being down hundreds of officers, that this supposedly incredibly scarce resource is being routinely dispatched to watch men in heavy equipment dig holes,” Drekonja wrote. “Why is this?”

Off-duty Minneapolis police officer Hector Bugarin guards a Michels construction site in the Minnehaha neighborhood on September 20, 2022. Nicole Neri/Minnesota Reformer

Horowitz replied that this off-duty work is done outside of their MPD work, either on their days off or outside regular work hours. Their pay is funded by private companies, not the city. However, the officers are allowed to use an MPD squad car and wear their police uniform.

The extra work could also lead to dangerous fatigue, policing experts say. Working too many hours can “heighten pre-existing biases, increase complaints and use-of-force incidents, impair driving performance and in general lead to impairment of performance of routine skills,” according to a 2019 MPD audit of off-duty work.

The Michels vehicles are hard to miss, Drekonja said, taking up most of the block.

“The officer is never doing anything resembling policing,” Drekonja said, like talking to residents or cruising around. “They are invariably sitting on their phones.”

The company also has a number of city contracts. City documents indicate the company has been awarded nearly $26 million in contracts since 2017, mostly to clean water mains and rehab a pump station flood wall. Michels is replacing natural gas service lines throughout Minneapolis. City officials have not said whether those contracts call for MPD protection. 

Nikki Carlson, who lives in North Minneapolis, said she’s noticed MPD squads guarding Michels trucks, trailers and loaders at construction sites all over the city for some time. She saw Michels doing gas line work for CenterPoint Energy a block from her house. CenterPoint has hired Michels to do numerous projects in the metro area. 

Carlson assumed the police were there to keep an eye on the construction equipment, but noticed they leave when the workers leave. An officer told her they’re not there to watch the equipment. She asked a Michels worker why there were so many police squad cars there, and he said MPD protection was a condition of their contract

Carlson feels she’s paying for “unnecessary MPD protection” and inadvertently supporting Michels’ gubernatorial campaign by paying her property tax bill.

Earlier this summer, Lt. Kelly O’Rourke said the cops make two to four times as much money doing off-duty work for private companies. So while he struggled to cover the downtown precinct night shift with 14 officers — down from 60 — after an exodus of officers following the police murder of George Floyd, at least three officers were doing off-duty work downtown that night. 

Drekonja’s friends have sent him snapshots of similar MPD/Michels scenes in other areas of Minneapolis, such as 56th Street and Chicago Avenue.

Drekonja’s neighbor said a Michels worker told him the police protection was part of their contract.

“If Michels asked for it, why did the city agree to this demand from a Wisconsin company whose head is currently running as the GOP gubernatorial candidate in Wisconsin?” Drekonja asked Koski. “I have to think very few Minneapolis taxpayers like the idea of the Minneapolis PD functioning as the security force for a company owned by a wealthy conservative Wisconsin resident.”

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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.