Mpls police chief blames economy for recruit layoffs

Friday, December 18, 2009

Minneapolis — Twenty Minneapolis Police officers graduated from the academy on Thursday and the new officers will hit the streets this weekend. But by the end of next week, they'll be out of work because police department will lay off the officers because it can't afford to pay their salaries.

The 20 members of the police recruit class of 2009 entered the ceremony to the melancholy serenade of a bagpiper. Dressed in crisply-pressed blue uniforms and white dress gloves, they sat like statues in front of an auditorium full of family, police brass and the media.

There was also an elephant in the auditorium; that this group of recruits will soon become among the first Minneapolis police officers ever to be laid off.

Police Chief Tim Dolan didn't try to avoid the elephant. He blamed the bad news on tough economic times. However, Dolan said despite the lay-offs the new recruits have earned something that can't be taken from them.

"You're going to be police officers today," Dolan said. "You'll be sworn in and you'll be police officers for the rest of your career."

The question is where they will be police officers. If Minneapolis can't afford them, the new officers can work at any state law enforcement agency that's hiring. But Dolan said he hopes the department will get a federal grant that will allow him to rehire some of them.

A total of 25 sworn officers - including the new class -- will be laid off. With the grant and some shifting of funds, Dolan said he could keep 15.

"It's no idle promise when we say that we are working very, very hard to try and make sure we rehire every one of these people," he said.

One by one the new officers came forward to pick up their badges. Each one brings a family member with them to pin the badges on their uniforms. As the procession continues, the ethnic diversity of the new officers becomes apparent.

Kong Moua is one of three Hmong officers in the class. Moua hopes he'll be rehired because he said it's important for Hmong residents to have representation on the police force.

"I think definitely it's going to be a big help to our Hmong community," he said. "For our Hmong officers to speak Hmong and help the community out here; especially on the north side."

Over the last several years, Hmong community members have been particularly vocal about the lack of cultural diversity on the police force. The rift between the community and department became especially prominent after a white police officer shot and killed a 19-year-old Hmong man three years ago.

Nearly all the new officers entered the department through the Community Service Officer program. Under the program, students who are studying law enforcement can work as civilians in the department part time. Police officials say the program has helped bring more women and minorities to the force.

According to the latest department data, 18 percent of sworn officers are people of color - 16 percent are women.

Abubakar Muridi was born in Somalia and said he's wanted to be a police officer all his life. He's holding out hope that he'll still be able to do that in Minneapolis.

"Right now I'm happy that I'm here. I'm blessed. I'm here," Muridi said. "I just want to go out and have fun those four days and just see what happens. This is a great department and I'm pretty sure we'll be back - if we get laid off - we'll be back real soon."

There are six women joining the force and one of them, Yolanda Wilks, is also one of several new African-American officers. She's got mixed feelings about the graduation.

"I'm sad -- kinda sad," Wilks said. "But also we're happy of the accomplishments we made this far."

Wilks said she struggled at times through the training, but credits her family with helping her make it through. To help show her appreciation, Wilks had her mom pin her badge on during the ceremony.

"It made me feel good. I'm the oldest of eight," she said. "And just to be doing something to encourage them -- it made me feel to have my mom right there by my side."

The officers' last day on the job will land just a few days before Christmas. Police officials hope they will get word about the status of the federal grant soon, so the newly laid off officers won't have to sit in limbo for too long.

They are also hoping that older officers decide to take early retirement incentives. The senior officers have larger salaries and Dolan said he can hire three new officers for every two more experienced officers who leave the force.


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