Council moves forward on police evaluation

The Forest Lake city-police reconciliation and analysis process took another step at the City Council’s July 24 meeting, when the council approved the selection of a firm to provide an organizational and staffing evaluation of the Police Department.

Obtaining a consultant to offer analysis and feedback on Police Department operations was one of the tenets of the contract agreement the city reached with police labor unions in May. The contract effectively ended the city’s early 2017 exploration of using contract law enforcement services instead of the Police Department. In addition to analyzing how the department functions and is staffed now, City Administrator Aaron Parrish said, the evaluation could help the city come up with a methodology for handling future changes in the number of proposed police staff.

Contrary to the suggestion of a post being passed around on social media in the days following the meeting, the evaluation was not initiated by the pro-contract law enforcement council members and was included in the contract agreement agreed to by the police labor unions and the City Council (by a 4-1 vote) this spring. The selection of the firm to complete the evaluation was made by unanimous vote on July 24.

Along with the consultant analysis, another police contract provision was the establishment of a conflict resolution and mediation shareholder group made up of council members, city staff and police officers. The group discussed two consultant organizations earlier this month and generally favored a proposal from McGrath Consulting Services, which would cost approximately $33,300 if the analysis is started before Aug. 21 or $37,200 if it’s started later. The group also indicated that the other proposal, a $46,800 plan from the Center for Public Safety Management, would also be a good fit for the city, but the McGrath offer was preferred due to its lower cost and the firm’s experience analyzing police forces from nearby cities of comparable population. However, Police Chief Rick Peterson, who is on the shareholder group, stressed that he would be open to either option.

“I think they (would) both do an excellent job,” he said.

Besides the cost difference, there were other differences in the proposals, particularly relating to methodology. McGrath’s service would examine workloads and staffing needs based on analysis of calls for service, as well as a department and council-wide interview process, while the Center for Public Safety Management’s approach utilizes slightly fewer interviews but a more in-depth process for analyzing calls for service and other officer tasks.

During the council meeting, Mayor Ben Winnick, one of the council members on the shareholder’s group, said he preferred the CPSM proposal because the breadth of information offered seemed richer and of a quality that the city could use for years to come.

“I think their analytics are much deeper, much more factored out,” he said, later adding, “I think we can get a better picture from both inside and outside.”

Councilman Michael Freer, the other council member on the shareholder’s group, said he could not provide feedback during the shareholder discussion while he was sidelined by an illness, but he concurred with Winnick’s assessment of the firms, calling the CPSM approach more conducive to “data-driven decisions.” He suggested that the more raw data the department and council have at their fingertips, the less traction there can be for accusations that either side has a bias.

“I think the more data that we actually have, the more it gets away from (allegations of), ‘Oh, Mike doesn’t like the Police Department,’ or ‘The Police Department doesn’t like Mike, so this is what we’re going to do,’” he said. “I think it gets more into actual fact and that’s one of the things that I think would be positive from this. We’re looking to solve issues and create a healing atmosphere, and so in order to do that, I think (a) real, concrete type data-based decision is the best thing.”

Peterson and Parrish, who is also on the shareholder’s group, reiterated that both firms were well-regarded, and Peterson said he was comfortable with either group conducting an analysis. The council unanimously went with CPSM shortly thereafter. Once the evaluation process begins, CPSM has estimated that it will take three months to complete.

Staffing levels will only be part of the evaluation, which will also include analysis of shift structure, policing focus, community policing procedures and other organizational issues. Parrish confirmed to The Times that regarding staffing levels, the analysis is not being conducted to come up with a specific recommendation, and the outcome of the analysis could conclude that the department was adequately staffed or had not enough or too many members — though he added that it was unlikely the analysis would conclude that the department was overstaffed, given city benchmarking reports that have shown the department in line with police staffing levels of comparable area cities.

“Hopefully, ultimately, it will give people a common reference point for certain facets of Police Department operations,” he said.

The July 24 vote came about a month after the council finalized which of its members would be in the shareholder’s group, by a 3-2 vote at its June 26 meeting. Earlier in the month, Winnick had nominated himself and Freer as the council’s representatives on the group, while Councilwoman Mara Bain and Councilman Sam Husnik argued that it would be more representative of the community if a council member from each “side” of the contract law enforcement was included, rather than two who voted in favor of contracting with the Washington County Sheriff’s Office. The vote was tabled to July 24 so that Councilman Ed Eigner could also be present. After a brief discussion on the issue, Eigner, Freer and Winnick voted to approve Winnick’s original picks for the group, with Bain and Husnik voting against.

“I think it’s important that the stakeholders group be seen as having multiple viewpoints and then also the support of the community, and I keep hearing community input and community support around wanting to make sure that there is multiple sides reflected,” Bain said as to why she hoped she or Husnik could be a participating shareholder.

Winnick said that because city staff and police officers will be on the group, he believed he and Freer would bring balance to the group, an argument which with Husnik disagreed. Eigner added that all council members will get a chance to provide input on police matters once they come out of the shareholders group.

Freer said that allowing him and Winnick to be on the group will allow the group to have the “tough discussions” the city and the police need to have to heal and move forward – discussions the group might not have if the city were represented by council members who took an anti-contract law enforcement stance in the spring.

“There’s things that need to be said, that, with all due respect, I don’t think either you or Sam will say,” he told Bain. “I’m not trying to be mean; I respect both of you, but we need to have the discussions and they need to happen, and then I will gladly, gladly give up my spot for one of you to sit on here.”