Photos and video by Ryan Howard
A group of protestors that topped out at around 25 people stood in front of Forest Lake City Hall for about an hour Feb. 6 to protest the city’s request for a contract law enforcement proposal from the Washington County Sheriff’s Office.
The Forest Lake City Council scheduled a special work session Feb. 6 to discuss the guiding principles of its evaluation of moving to contract law enforcement services, as well as to discuss the airport overrun cost dispute.
As it was at the council’s Jan. 23 meeting, the council chamber was packed with residents who wanted to speak or hear about the latest developments on the law enforcement issue, which was brought to the spotlight after the city’s Personnel Committee authorized a request for a proposal for contracted services from the Washington County Sheriff’s Office.
Unlike the Jan. 23 meeting, the Feb. 6 meeting was preceded by a protest by about 25 residents, who stood outside the Forest Lake City Center for an hour before the meeting to protest the proposal request. Their conversation was quiet and reserved – including with council members, as both Mara Bain and Michael Freer stopped to speak with them about their concerns – but the message of the protest was more pointed: The protesters reserved room on three signs for the names of Freer, Councilman Ed Eigner (the two councilmen on the Personnel Committee) and Mayor Ben Winnick, alleging that each man “does not support our police.” The protest was a physical manifestation of a sizable online movement to keep the Police Department intact – an online petition to keep the department was at more than 2,200 signatures at press time and a locally based Facebook group called “We love our cops” was close to clearing 1,000 likes.
Inside the council chamber, the pointed criticism continued, with multiple residents urging the council not to consider any action that could result in the disbanding of the Forest Lake Police Department. Among the speakers were Russ Peterson, whose statement questioning the motives behind the request got a standing ovation, and Jennifer Snell, who feared that contracted services would result in longer wait times that residents couldn’t afford.
“I was in a severe accident on (State Highway) 97 about 12 years ago where I got T-boned, and had it not been for the prompt response of the Forest Lake Police Department, administering emergency services at the time, I probably would not be here today,” she said.
On the other side of the issue, Planning Commissioner Eric Langness defended the proposal request, saying that the city was lucky to be able to compare the excellent service provided by both the Police Department and the Sheriff’s Office. He urged council members not to prejudge the wisdom of using contracted services until the sheriff’s office proposal comes back to the city.
“We should be grateful that we have choices, and … during a decision making process like this, I applaud you for looking at all the options,” he said.
The council reviewed a brief document presented by City Administrator Aaron Parrish, who outlined some guidelines on which the city would evaluate a contract law enforcement approach. Parrish acknowledged that though it would be difficult to provide an “apples to apples” comparison for some facets of law enforcement, as the local police have different approaches to public safety in place than sheriff’s deputies do, he said that the comparison would include benchmarks that would look at the two agencies’ patrol coverage, community policing and more. The comparisons would include a look at whether becoming part of a larger law enforcement whole by switching to a sheriff’s office contract could result in better technology use, law enforcement innovation and positioning for future needs at challenges. The city will also examine how the economy of scale might result in cost savings for Forest Lake’s law enforcement budget, taking into account one-time expenses like unemployment benefits that the city would incur with a switch to contract.
Parrish mentioned, and Winnick reiterated as “fundamental,” that the city was planning on keeping the same level or greater of patrol coverage in the city should a switch occur, and Parrish said that should the Police Department be broken up, the city would seek to include current police staff in the ranks of local Sheriff’s Office law enforcement. Winnick added that it was important to him that the local deputies assigned to Forest Lake would be stationed in the city during their duty hours, allowing them to respond to a crime with the same speed as a police officer. A sheriff’s office use or reuse of the current city Police Department will also be part of the upcoming discussion.
Bain wanted to modify the principles to include a more aggressive public notification and input plan, as well as the inclusion of additional services that the city wanted to “meet or exceed” their current levels. She also asked that the council add another principle regarding the importance of local control, but Freer thought this was an attempt to tilt the process against considering contracted service.
“It would seem to me that it’s in our public interest to maintain that local control,” Bain said, adding that law enforcement vision, policy, budget and service standards as some of the items she thought the council would like to maintain control over in any law enforcement system.
“I think you’re making arguments about why we shouldn’t do it rather than trying to make ideas on what the standards would be, looking ahead at the contract,” Freer replied.
Eigner said that Bain had good ideas for important standards but added his belief that many of those issues would be addressed naturally during the proposal process.
“I would think the things you mentioned will be part of that proposal,” he said. “I would hope they would be, and I would be very upset if they’re not.”
Councilman Sam Husnik stressed the importance of city transparency during the process, voicing again his concern that neither he nor Bain knew that the Personnel Committee would be discussing contract law enforcement until after it had approved the proposal request. After further council discussion, members agreed that Bain would meet with Parrish to brainstorm community input questions to be used throughout the process.