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Within two weeks in 2014, two people were shot and killed in local and national stories that can frame the current debate on policing. West St. Paul mourned the death of Mendota Heights Police Officer Scott Patrick, killed during a traffic stop on Dodd Road. Just 10 days later, the shooting of Michael Brown galvanized the Black Lives Matter movement with protests against perceived bias in policing.
These are two extremes of modern policing, creating opposing narratives that police departments either need to be dismantled or need to be unquestioningly supported. As with all things, the reality is more complicated.
When current West Saint Paul Police Chief Brian Sturgeon was first promoted, he talked about the importance of communication with the community and training among his officers. Six months later, after George Floyd was killed, he detailed the department’s use of force guidelines for city council. If the differences in policy weren’t clear enough—West St. Paul had already banned choke holds and had a duty to intercede—Sturgeon showed up at a peaceful protest in West St. Paul to talk to residents and answer questions.
It’s one thing for the police chief to talk candidly about difficult issues. But what about the officers who are on the streets every day? We sat down with several West St. Paul police officers to talk about the string of police killings and the resulting tension with the community.
“It’s bad enough we’re under a microscope now. We don’t need somebody making it worse, so we address it quickly.”West St. Paul Police Officer Jose Marrero
A Conversation With West St. Paul Police Officers
“They’re all tragedies,” said Jose Marrero, a veteran officer who joined the force in 1999, talking about officer-involved shootings. “A loss of life is exactly what it is, a loss of life.”
The officers we talked to were reluctant to share their personal opinion on specific cases, and with ongoing cases, such as the Locke shooting, Chief Sturgeon specifically asked them not to share their opinion.
“To be blunt, we worry about our business,” Marrero said. “We try to keep it so we don’t ever have to have those conversations.”
“The problem is something is continuing to divide the people and us and it shouldn’t be that way,” said Ben Ellringer, who joined the department in 2017 and is also a member of the South Metro SWAT Team. “Because nobody I know—nobody in this department guaranteed—comes in, puts on this uniform, and goes out with a malicious intent.”
“It’s not how we train. It’s not acceptable here. And if you want to get ostracized here that’s a good way to do it—be a problem for this entire department,” said Marrero. “It’s bad enough we’re under a microscope now. We don’t need somebody making it worse, so we address it quickly. And I don’t think we’ve ever really had an issue with it. We vet our people fairly well.”
Small-Town Police Department
That focus on training and vetting people speaks to an issue that sets West St. Paul apart: culture.
“I can’t comment on Minneapolis,” said Marrero. “But I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t two different cultures.”
When West St. Paul police officers say it doesn’t happen here, it’s more than a department line or a biased perception. Going back to 1989, West St. Paul officers have fired shots at people on only two occasions—a 2007 bank robbery when an officer was held hostage and an early 1990s incident when someone shot at officers and they returned fire.
The department has 41 official complaints going back to 2013, but 71% turned out to be unfounded. The same incident can be reported multiple times, and many are internal complaints as opposed to a resident filing a complaint. For example, three of the complaints were internal performance issues with the same officer who eventually resigned. Only nine complaints overall resulted in action, and four of those were about being late for work.
Complaints specifically about use of force in West Saint Paul are rare—the most recent came in 2020 and then 2010, but in both cases video proved the complaint to be unfounded. For a confirmed complaint, you’d have to go back to a 2001 lawsuit when an officer punched someone in handcuffs (that officer is no longer on the force).
Part of that is the reality of a smaller community. But officers say it also reflects a different culture in the West St. Paul Police Department.
“My department is solid in its character,” said Marrero. “We aren’t perfect, but we refer to each other as partners because that is the expectation. Any one of my partners, if we go somewhere and it gets heated, if we can find the way to dial it down, that’s the path. That’s how we train. That’s our mentality here. We’re not doing this warrior training stuff.”
You can see it in how the officers are out talking to people.
“We’re approachable,” said Marrero. “We’re willing to have a conversation.” He describes officers getting out of their cars and talking to business owners and people on the street.
“I lived in Minneapolis for several years before moving to West St. Paul and never had one interaction with any officer there,” said West St. Paul City Council Member Wendy Berry, who went on to describe her personal experience with West St. Paul officers: “They’ve been very responsive, very thorough, and very understanding.”
Some of that comes down to having a smaller department that can approach things with a personal touch.
“I came from a department of 200-something people,” Ellringer said. “A lot of times, there you’re just a number. Here the chief knows everybody.”
West St. Paul has 33 full-time officers and nine support staff (with two more officer positions being added in July).
“It’s something as simple as recognizing the different tone in your voice on the radio,” said Antonio Cortez, who joined the force in November and quickly noticed how well the officers know each other. “The pitch in your partner’s voice can tell you if they’re tense or if everything’s OK.”
Policing and COVID-19
That small-town feel of the West St. Paul Police Department could be seen and felt during COVID-19.
“I think 2020 was hard for a lot of us because that was taken away because of COVID,” Ellringer said. “There was no face-to-face contact.”
Residents would call the police department because they wanted to talk to someone.
“It was really, really tough to see that,” Ellringer said. “But I think that speaks to our department as well, that you have residents who trust us enough that we’re going to show up.”
The officers weren’t the only ones who noticed the COVID-19 disconnect.
“During the pandemic, I could tell Chief Sturgeon was authentically disappointed the police couldn’t hold as many public events as they had the past couple of years,” said Berry. “I think the community missed them, too.”
That lack of community engagement led to Santa’s Holiday Hero Express, a beloved community event where first responders parade Santa through the streets of West St. Paul.
Challenges in West St. Paul
None of that is to say everything is perfect in West St. Paul, or there’s a lack of crime. Late last year West St. Paul saw four shootings in three weeks, when the city normally sees only half a dozen shootings in an entire year. The strong retail corridor on Robert Street also brings a wealth of shoplifting (which is how West St. Paul frequently ends up on those click-bait ‘most dangerous city’ lists).
West St. Paul police also get their share of complaints. A rash of screws popping tires in 2018 seemed to be targeted harassment and left some residents frustrated with the lack of police action. Then in 2019, complaints came to city council, first about a problem property and allegations of sexism over the police response, then two weeks later with complaints over how police handled an alleged assault. Then there was the case of racist graffiti in 2021. When the police investigation—with the help of the FBI—didn’t pan out, the victim confronted a neighbor, which resulted in a restraining order against the victim. The victim then showed up at three city council meetings in a row, railing against the police department and city officials.
Challenges of Being a Cop
All of that speaks to the challenge of being a police officer today. Marrero has been on the force for more than 20 years, and said it used to be rare to see someone carrying a gun in public.
“Now there’s guys that go shopping at Walmart with a firearm,” Marrero said. “It’s becoming very common.”
Society is getting better at recognizing and responding to the mounting trauma police officers face. West St. Paul offers mental health support for its staff with a nationally recognized program that requires two annual sessions with a therapist and departmental support for more sessions if needed.
Another challenge facing police officers is the shift in public perception following the string of police killings.
“I’ve lost friends and family because of it—just because of what I do,” said Ellringer. “I’d say my kids have probably taken more of the brunt of it than I have.”
Marrero agreed, adding that he would hear it from his kids’ friends.
“I think a lot of those statements are made from people who just don’t actually know any of us personally,” said Marrero. “You can find bad examples of doctors, dentists, cab drivers … Everybody’s lumping every badge together.”
Hot-Button Policing Issues
Those increased challenges for police officers have brought up a host of reforms that are shaping the conversation around policing.
Video of specific incidents has fueled much of the conversation in the last few years. The West St. Paul Police Department implemented body cams in 2020.
Initially reluctant to embrace the cameras, Marrero has come around.
“You’re a fool if you think you can go outside and not be on somebody’s video,” Marrero said. “So why not have mine to prove I’m not doing something?”
So far body cams have actively protected officers against allegations of wrongdoing: “That’s where it saves us, is that we’ve been accused of things that clearly did not happen,” Marrero said.
But body cams have also proactively calmed situations when people know they’re on camera.
“The cameras make a noise, it’ll just make a little beep to let us know it’s on,” Marrero said. “You can tell right away because their demeanor shuts down because they’re being recorded.”
Another potential reform is reducing the workload of police officers with social workers who are specifically trained to handle some of the situations the police often face. Again, West St. Paul is a trailblazer, working with social workers and community advocates.
But the challenge is whether or not social workers are available when problems arise.
“If they’re willing to work nights, I’m willing to give it a shot,” Ellringer said, noting that most social workers put in a typical 9-to-5 shift and aren’t available after hours. While Ellringer is open to the idea of social workers responding to calls, he did express skepticism about the impact.
“I think there are some crisis calls we get where there is no voice of reason that’s going to calm them down,” Ellringer said.
Another buzz word in reform conversations is de-escalation. But it’s not new.
“It gets talked about a lot in the media like it’s some new concept, and it’s always been there,” Ellringer said.
It’s a major part of officer training and the preferred way to handle a situation.
“If you can build a rapport and you can de-escalate it through whatever conversation, that’s the path we’re going to go down,” Marrero said. “At least we’re going to always try that.”
The recent shooting of Amir Locke by Minneapolis police while executing a no-knock warrant has re-energized the conversation that came to national prominence after the 2020 killing of Breonna Taylor. West St. Paul generally does very few no-knock warrants, but they did use one in February 2022.
“There’s a lot that goes into deciding whether or not [to use a no-knock warrant,]” Ellringer said. “Our team does a lot of fact checking and intel gathering. A lot of the ones where we’ve done the no knocks we know for a fact there is a gun or guns in that house. And we want to get to those people before they can get to those guns.”
Ellringer works on the South Metro SWAT and has executed a lot of warrants for different agencies, including St. Paul Police. Which raised an interesting question over the commonly cited stat that St. Paul Police hasn’t done a no-knock warrant since 2016.
“I’ve served a number of warrants for St. Paul here in Dakota County,” Ellringer said. “You have to look at where these are being served.”
While it hasn’t been a topic of reform, the issue of crowd swarming has been a growing challenge for police. It happens frequently in Minneapolis and St. Paul where a crowd converges on a scene trying to overwhelm police or disturb evidence.
That swarming behavior appeared in West St. Paul in late 2021 after a shooting at a gas station when a crowd hindered first responders—including someone jumping on a paramedic while they were tending to a victim. That kind of volatile situation could easily have turned into an officer-involved shooting, if it weren’t for the restraint of West St. Paul officers.
“It won’t be on the news though,” Marrero said. “That’s OK. We don’t want to be on the news.”
West St. Paul had to call for backup to get the situation under control, with officers from nine different departments responding.
“When our department puts out a call for help, practically every one responds,” Marrero said. “We’ve got that reputation. We’ll come help you anytime, and if we ask for help—we mean it and we need it.”
The Right Path Forward
While policing continues to be a divisive issue and a challenge for officers, West St. Paul has been making strides.
“Maintaining visibility in our city in a way that makes people feel safe is the biggest thing,” said Berry. “Transparency is also important.” Berry emphasized the need to talk about concerns and learn from people who do feel tension with police so that relationship can be improved. “People look out for each other in West Saint Paul,” they added.
“We’re on the right path,” said Marrero. “I’m proud of the department. I’ve been here a long time. I like what I see coming up behind me.”
The proof might be seen in recruitment, which has been a challenge for nearly every department. But while other departments struggle to even get applicants, let alone fill positions, West St. Paul recently filled all open positions. They’re adding two more officers in 2022, and Sturgeon is optimistic they’ll fill those positions as well.
“We got to keep doing what we’ve been doing this entire time,” said Ellringer. “That’s why we have the reputation we have.”
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