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Canoes for cops: northern Minnesota department employs unique recruitment effort

Ely, a town in Minnesota's remote north woods, is offering new police recruits canoes as an incentive to join and stay with its struggling department.

The police department in the remote north woods Minnesota town of Ely faces the same challenges of recruiting and keeping new officers as countless other law enforcement agencies across the country. So it's offering a unique incentive: canoes.

Ely, a former mining and logging community that's best known as a gateway to the popular Boundary Waters Canoe Area, will provide free Kevlar canoes worth $3,800 to the next officers it hires — and to current employees.

The lightweight craft, made from the same strong synthetic fibers as bulletproof vests, are perfect for paddling off into the nearby wilderness and exploring its more than 1,000 pristine lakes. The department — consisting of the chief, an assistant chief, and five slots for patrol officers — has one opening now with another coming soon.

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Police Chief Chad Houde said he'd already had two calls expressing interest as of Thursday morning and he's expecting at least several more because of the unusual offer. Lots of police departments offer hiring bonuses, he said, so he was looking for a way to stand out. At the suggestion of Assistant Chief Mike Lorenz, they decided to leverage Ely's plentiful outdoor recreation opportunities.

"You can get done with a shift, maybe it was a stressful shift. ... The best way to decompress is go out canoeing, hunting or fishing," Houde said.

Police departments nationwide have struggled to recruit and retain officers in recent years. There's a shortage that many in law enforcement blame on the twofold morale hit of 2020 — the coronavirus pandemic and criticism of police that boiled over with the murder of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer. Minneapolis is debating whether to offer bonuses as high as $15,000 to new hires to bolster its badly depleted ranks.

Houde can easily rattle off figures showing the steady decline in the number of people graduating from Minnesota’s college law enforcement programs and getting licensed as peace officers. That's meant dwindling applications for the Ely department — just one for Houde's last opening earlier this year.

About 200 of Minnesota's 400 law enforcement agencies currently have openings posted on the state licensing board's job site.

The Ely City Council approved the chief's $30,000 proposal on Tuesday.

Ely, a community of around 3,200 people about 140 miles north of Minneapolis, is getting the money from its $140,000 share of a $300 million public safety assistance bill that the Legislature approved this year.

It's buying the canoes from local outfitters, some of which have also offered discounts for new officers for camping and other equipment rentals. The department will throw in two paddles and two life jackets.

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The catch: New recruits or current employees who take the canoes must commit to staying for three years, or they’ll have to pay back a third of the canoe's value for each year they leave early.

While Ely pays its officers well compared with nearby northeastern Minnesota communities, starting at around $65,000, it can't pay as much as larger towns, so its officers tend to move on after a few years.

Houde is an exception. He moved up to Ely from the Minneapolis area 19 years ago, and uses his own experience and the town's outdoor lifestyle as a selling point.

"I basically get to live at my cabin," he said.

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