Morris, Minn., mayor says disbanding police was ‘toughest

CATHY WURZER: Our top story– last night, the small town of Morris, Minnesota authorized the Stephens County Sheriff to hire two new deputies. They’ll need those officers based on last week’s vote to discontinue the more than 140-year run of Morris’ City Police Department at the end of the year because of staffing issues.

morris mayor Sheldon Giese joins us right now to talk about that decision and what things will look like in Morris going forward. Welcome, mayor. How are you?

SHELDON GIESE: I’m doing well today.

CATHY WURZER: Thank you for being with us. You know this, of course– Morris isn’t exactly a tiny town. You have more than 5,000 residents. You’re a college town with U of M-Morris campus. You’re not going to have a police department. How did that happen?

SHELDON GIESE: It kind of happened over time. But we found ourselves with several officers leaving, all for different reasons. And our most recent recruitment efforts pretty much came up blank. So it was a really rough decision. But it had to be a timely decision. It wasn’t something that we could put on the back burner for a long time.

CATHY WURZER: How many officers are in the Department right now?

SHELDON GIESE: Well, we have a department of eight officers. Right now, there are five. One is on a medical leave. One is the chief. One is an active patrol officer. One has turned in his resignation next week, I guess. And one is in the final phases of getting hired by the sheriff’s office.

CATHY WURZER: So, really, you just have the chief and one officer. Or you will.

SHELDON GIESE: Correct.

CATHY WURZER: Yeah.

SHELDON GIESE: That’s correct. We’ll be down two. Yes.

CATHY WURZER: OK. I’m wondering here– is the County Sheriff going to get any funding support or new staff to cover you, the city of Morris?

SHELDON GIESE: Absolutely. And that’s the reason that we had to act rather timely on this. The sheriff, I think, would half cover Morris anyway. But if we didn’t go into a contract with the sheriff’s department, there would be no increased funding. There have been no increased officers.

And it would really been– over time, it would have really been detrimental to the sheriff’s department. We have a really active and a really good sheriff’s department and a great sheriff. And we don’t want to hamper their department.

CATHY WURZER: I’m curious about the role that the University of Minnesota-Morris campus may play in this. Might the university take a role in public safety at all?

SHELDON GIESE: Yes and no. I guess the role that the university police department has is support and local backup. And they’ll continue to do that, I think. They have a real good police department there, active police department. It really shouldn’t affect the university and the people at the university.

CATHY WURZER: Towns across the country, mayor, as you know, are having a tough time finding officers. I understand the professions in the midst of a 25-year low of new officers entering the field. You have officers retiring and resigning. What does the future of policing look like, do you think, in small communities like Morris?

SHELDON GIESE: Well, more and more, I think, are going toward the police department or they’re cutting back. They’re contracting with the sheriff’s department or they are making their police departments smaller, offering less services, probably not 24/7 departments. Right now, that’s the future. Until the overall feelings toward the police departments change, I don’t expect a lot of people going into the police profession.

CATHY WURZER: And you’re finding that the same case in Morris. As you mentioned earlier in the conversation, you had feelers out to hire, but you just didn’t get anybody.

SHELDON GIESE: Right. Right. Our last recruitment effort, we had two applicants. One took a job somewhere else before you could even talk to him. And the second one just was not a good fit. They did some background checking and stuff and he just would not have fit.

CATHY WURZER: So I wonder, what do residents say about this?

SHELDON GIESE: Well, residents are, I don’t know, Some of them are angry about it. Some of them are kind of blindsided by it. They’re puzzled. They just don’t know what to expect.

They should not experience anything different than what’s already going on. The police department is active and is doing whatever they can. And the sheriff’s department actually has been backing up our police department and taking calls. And the biggest difference for the public is they’re going to see an officer in a brown uniform versus a blue uniform.

CATHY WURZER: Now, I don’t know if you’re a native of Morris, Minnesota. Obviously, you’re the mayor. So how does it feel personally to know that after what more than 140 years, Morris won’t have its own police department?

SHELDON GIESE: Yeah, that’s really tough. I’ve been here, this is my 16th year. I’ve been on the council for 21. This is, I think, our toughest decision that I’ve had to be involved in. None of us on the council took this lightly.

It is a major decision. As I’m sure you know, one of our council members voted against contracting with the sheriff’s department. And I understand his reasoning and I go along with his reasoning. But I felt that we had to move forward. The last thing I wanted to do is hamper what we have left of the police department and hurt the sheriff’s department in the meantime because of lack of funding and lack of ability to hire more officers to get the job done.

CATHY WURZER: So you did what you had to do.

SHELDON GIESE: Yeah, basically. That’s my thoughts is that we did what we had to do. It’s happening quite a bit over the state, over the nation. I’m not sure what the answer is. But until there’s a better outlook on the police, and the sheriffs, and the law enforcement altogether, I would guess that this is just going to continue.

CATHY WURZER: Well, mayor, I appreciate your time. And we wish you well. Thanks much.

SHELDON GIESE: Yes. Thank you.

CATHY WURZER: Morris Mayor Sheldon Giese has been with us.