West St. Paul Police Chief Brian Sturgeon

Brian Sturgeon: West St. Paul’s New Police Chief

Thanks to Cherokee Service for their support.

In December, City Manager Ryan Schroeder appointed Interim Police Chief Brian Sturgeon as West St. Paul’s newest police chief. With the retirement of former Chief Bud Shaver in May 2019, Sturgeon stepped up from lieutenant to the interim role. Sturgeon first joined the West St. Paul Police Department in 1991.

“While we’re not going to agree on everything, in order to grow we must be able to communicate with and understand each other. I truly believe spending time with each other and creating a dialogue is the best way we can close that divide.”

Brian Sturgeon

Police Chief Brian Sturgeon

Sturgeon, 51, grew up in South St. Paul, just off Highway 52 and Wentworth. But he spent a lot of time in West St. Paul, hanging out on Robert Street as a teen.

He had horses most of his life, and even boarded one horse at the Marthaler Farm on Oakdale at Lothenbach. As a 5-year-old, Sturgeon once tried to ride the horse to Target. His family had to get rid of the horse when construction of Highway 52 took most of the Marthaler Farm property.

These days Sturgeon and his family live in rural Dakota County where he has horses, grows vegetables, and raises chickens, pigs, and maybe soon a goat or two. In addition to the outdoors, Sturgeon also enjoys buying and selling about anything, whether it’s antiques or storage unit auctions.

Talking With Police Chief Brian Sturgeon

Our conversation with Chief Sturgeon uncovered some interesting news, including the coming implementation of body cameras, the Citizen Academy is returning, and insights on some hot-button issues.

Here’s the interview:

Why did you want to become a police officer?

One day in high school a friend of mine asked me what I was doing that Thursday night. He was a West St. Paul Police Explorer at the time and Thursdays were the meeting dates. He wanted me to check out this Boy Scouts of America affiliate program that the West St. Paul Police Department was sponsoring, so I took him up on it.

Until this point, I wanted to become an accountant. All of my high school electives were business related. However, after the first year of the Explorer Program, I knew I was meant to be in law enforcement. 

The Explorer Program provided insights into various career paths, and was geared toward high school aged individuals. During my time as an explorer, I got to know several officers who I remain friends with to this day. I saw the excitement of responding to calls for service and helping calm tensions, keeping the peace and the interactions the officers had with members of the community. Every day was something different. It was exciting, dramatic, and emotional. I knew that I could not be in an office all day long and found that police work was my calling.

Jerry Husman, a West St. Paul Police Captain at the time, became my mentor. Through his encouragement and friendship, I went to college and after completing the Law Enforcement Skills Program, I was hired as a community service officer and then a police officer here in West St Paul. Without Jerry’s mentorship, I would probably be a CPA somewhere.

What are some of the greatest challenges the West St. Paul Police Department faces?

The department constantly faces ever-changing challenges. Currently the greatest challenges include recruitment, technology, and mental health.

Recruitment

Just a few years ago we would receive around 300 applicants for an open police officer position. Today, we receive around 100 applications when a position opens up. It is sad to say, but our applicant numbers are high. Other departments in Dakota County have seen numbers in the 20s and 30s. In light of the downward trend in applicants we decided we could not just sit back and accept this reality.

We’ve been working with our HR Department to develop a recruitment plan. In this plan, we have distributed job announcements to over 150 schools and organizations in order to reach out to as many qualified job seekers as possible. We are also targeting specific organizations in order to bring a diverse group of applicants to the table. While we have made some headway with our recruitment plan, one obstacle we have discovered is that the number of diverse college students choosing a criminal justice path is quite low. For police departments in our area to grow in diversity we need to see those numbers increase. While any one department isn’t going to be able to reverse this trend on their own, we’re doing our part to help reverse this trend. We have recently started mentoring at our high school to show them what a rewarding career law enforcement can provide. In addition, we must work together not only on a local level, but on a statewide and national level to encourage diverse ethnic populations to enter the criminal justice field.

While we expect diversity in the work place to be a continued challenge (at least in the near future), we’re addressing the issue head on and proactively looking where we have not before. In order to increase diversity in our work force we have recently sought out and become involved with job fairs that market to diverse populations. We will continue to attend these regularly and seek out additional resources to help us attract a more diverse applicant pool. Previously, we only sought candidates when we had an open position. Now, even when we are not hiring, we’re marketing our workplace and getting our name out there. We’re initiating positive interactions with potential future candidates and creating an atmosphere that will hopefully get them to seek out West St. Paul when they’re ready to join a department.

Retention of personnel is also critical in maintaining a great police force. We have lost several good officers to other departments and the private sector. West St. Paul is a smaller department and naturally cannot offer as many opportunities for advancement or specialty positions that larger departments can. While there are many benefits to working at our department, specialty positions are simply not that numerous. We’ll continue to make strides to create an environment that will encourage officers to grow in West St. Paul

Technology

Technology is changing constantly. It is expensive and takes many resources to implement and manage.

We recently implemented body cameras and a new squad video system. Our patrol officers should all begin wearing body cameras in the coming weeks. Creating this program, testing vendors and developing policies took about 30% of my time in the past two years. There are still some unknowns, including the extent of resources it will take to manage the systems. We are estimating it will take about a half-time employee to manage the system across the department.

Our squads have computers, printers, secured Wi-Fi, and other electronics that must be maintained. Printers that were new a couple of years ago are no longer being manufactured or supported. Maintenance agreements on equipment and software must be evaluated to ensure we are receiving a quality product.

While it is expensive, our community expects a certain level of technology and we must remain diligent in making sure we meets the expectations of our residents.

Mental Health

Individuals with mental health related illnesses make up about 30% to 40% of our calls for service. The shoplifter at Walmart may have an underlining issue such as depression or chemical addiction. The family fight or argument, generally will have some sort of mental illness factor associated with it.

I am proud of the work we are doing in order to ensure our community members receive the mental health or chemical addiction support they need. Partnerships with Dakota County Social Services, private social service agencies, governmental entities, schools, hospitals, etc. are essential. We must also make sure our employees have the most up-to-date and effective training available.

You’ve been on the police force for a while and have seen how things work. Now that you’re in charge, what will you improve within the department? 

Open communication inside and outside the department is essential. I believe the chief should be out in the community talking with all segments of the population. We live in a very divided world and time. While we’re not going to agree on everything, in order to grow we must be able to communicate with and understand each other. I truly believe spending time with each other and creating a dialogue is the best way we can close that divide. One way we’re addressing that is by bringing back the Citizen Academy for 2020.

I want all employees to be a part of the operations of this department. While I am the ultimate decision maker, I want and need input from those around me. I need to understand different views and make appropriate decisions that benefit the community and department. 

I come from a training background. Education and training of employees is essential. We must look at new ways of doing business, including how we look at things holistically. Can a business practice be changed to benefit the community and/or department? If so, let’s look at it to determine the feasibility. It’s easy to rely on the way things have always been done. Under my leadership, we’ll be searching for ways to improve how things have been done in the past.

The City solicited feedback from the community regarding the police chief selection process. With that feedback, a police chief work plan was developed that includes six major areas the City, Police Department, and I must address. These areas include:

  • Communication and community engagement
  • Internal/external collaboration
  • Technology/equipment; facilities
  • Recruitment/diversity/staffing plan
  • Capacity building
  • Career development

A major portion of my job will be dedicated toward fulfilling the many goals associated with each of the six objectives.

Addressing the challenges our department faces and implementing programs or procedures to overcome those challenges will be essential.

Recently women in West St. Paul have felt dismissed or patronized by the police department. For example, the women who came forward with screws in their tires, a woman with concerns about criminal activity on her street, and a woman’s complaint about how officers interacted with her children. How will you make sure women feel safe in their community?

As stated above, open communication is essential. If anyone feels that they are not receiving the help they deserve, I want to hear about it. Being an empathic listener and understanding every individual’s tribulations is essential.

We must make sure our procedures are appropriate in specific cases. We must make sure we are providing the best service possible. In addition, we must partner with other city departments or outside organizations to effectively deal with problems. Communication, communication, communication.

Unfortunately, due to legal roadblocks, many times we cannot make statements or comment on specific instances of perceived maleficence, which can discredit our department and employees. We must understand there are many complexities with every situation.

Do you think it’s important to have diversity on the police force? What will you do to ensure the department has more diversity and represents the community it serves?

Absolutely. While I did touch on this subject in your question about our greatest challenges, I can expand on those comments.

I have had initial conversations with the commissioner of public safety and am pushing for more of a state-level initiative to recruit more minorities to college for criminal justice. We need to coach and mentor our youth in this community and show them law enforcement is a rewarding career path. We need diverse applicants to evaluate during a recruitment process, something we have not seen in appropriate levels.

As a department we need to implement programs to support the diversity we currently have and to assist us in recruitment of those groups. We need their input and involvement.

Most importantly we must have an individual who is qualified and will provide a great service to the community. I do not want an average officer, or even a better than average officer. I want exceptional officers to serve the people of West St. Paul. That is what is expected and deserved. We are a very busy department, the busiest per officer in Dakota County. With that brings challenges and the requirement for special people to carry out law enforcement duties in our town.

Over the past five years or so there’s been a difficult national conversation around policing, people of color, and excessive use of force. What will you do as police chief to ensure that your officers only use force when absolutely necessary? How will your department emphasize de-escalation techniques? What will you do to make sure racism, stereotypes, or implicit bias doesn’t lead to people of color having negative interactions with officers?

Hiring the right people is the most important thing we can do as we move forward. We must hire individuals with the ethical and moral attributes that are essential to provide excellent service to all members of our community.

Training comes in a close second. Our Use of Force instructors must remain on the cutting edge of techniques and training in order to meet today’s challenges. They must receive the best training available in order to bring those skills back to our department. All training that our officers receive must be pertinent and effective. We must have the ability hold employees accountable for infractions. Coaching and mentoring must be the norm, not the exception.

De-escalation is at the core of all of our in-house training. You cannot go a few minutes without some type of de-escalation technique or verbiage during training days. In addition, our procedures have changed when dealing with suicidal individuals or those with mental illness in order to reduce the chances of a deadly force encounter. Procedures must also change when required by courts, legislatively, or by changes in societal norms. We must remain on the forefront of new ideas and techniques that are effective and appropriate.

Seeing an officer use force against an individual is shocking and unsettling. It needs to be so. We must understand that force is the last option. Sometimes it may be the only viable option, but it is one that we do not want to use. Of all arrests made, less than half of one percent involve some type of force by our officers.We all have bias. It is natural. Through ongoing training and ensuring our culture does not foster decisions being made based on race or gender will continue to remain imperative. Again, community outreach activities will help a great deal in combating this perception.

We’ve heard that our officers get lots of training, including some important ones about autism, bias, and others. How do you make sure that training gets put into practice?

Each officer is required to complete training in many different areas. These requirements come from the State of Minnesota, federal government, and departmental mandates. Mental health, implicit bias, Autism, de-escalation, use of force, child protection, ethics, and legislative updates are just a few of the required annual courses our officers complete. Minimally each officer completes at least 80 hours of continuing education each year. Many complete 120 hours or more of training on an annual basis.

Training must be effective and relevant. Policies must be in place for the ability to hold individuals accountable for infractions. Supervisors must have the ability to coach and mentor those they oversee.

Reports must be reviewed and issues must be addressed in a timely manner. Our supervisors must have the time to supervise the officers on the street and make corrective measures right away. 

Policing is difficult stressful work, but West St. Paul has made positive headlines for mandatory mental health checks for officers. Can you talk about how that program has helped our officers?

This area I am very proud of. As you know, twice every year all employees are required to see our contracted therapists. I do not know what they talk about or what issues individual officers are faced with. All I know is that they attended. This program was just implemented in 2019 so long-term impacts are unknown at this time. However, we have received great feedback from several of our officers. Comments include:

  • “It was nice to talk to someone finally. I would not have gone if I was not required to.”
  • “It was very helpful.”
  • “I am going back!”
  • “Thank you for taking this seriously.”

We need to talk and vent just like everyone else. However, we do not want to expose our spouses, family, and friends to what we go through on a daily basis. Our loved ones don’t want to hear about the things we need to get off our chest the most. The infant that was accidentally smothered by their mother while taking a nap; the person who was killed in a crash; the child pornography, or the sexual assault of an elderly person are not topics we can discuss at the dinner table. It needs to go somewhere. We need to empty the bucket as much as we can. This is just one method of doing so. If it helps a couple of our officers, it is worth it.

We see a lot of the police at community events, whether it’s Cops in the Park or Shop With a Cop or the city open house. Why is it so important for police officers to be doing that type of work?

I could write a book about this one too. We need to provide our community the opportunity to get to know us as individuals, not just anonymous police officers. We need avenues for communication and trust building. These events provide opportunities to connect with our youth (a great recruitment tool too), diverse populations, and everyone that desires to participate. It allows us to showcase the partnerships and collaborative efforts in place to provide needed resources to the community.

Communication, partnerships and collaborative efforts are what it is all about.

Thanks to Police Chief Brian Sturgeon for taking the time to answer our questions and for serving and protecting our community for all these years.

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