Outrage over the disbanding of Forest Lake’s police department intensified Tuesday, with residents protesting the loss of local control before the Washington County Board and as many as 1,000 students walking out of classes at Forest Lake Area High School.
The reaction came a day after the City Council voted 3-2 to end at least 80 years of community policing in Forest Lake and contract instead with the Washington County Sheriff’s Office for law enforcement coverage. Council members who voted to dissolve the department, which has 25 police officers, said the change would save the city money.
The Police Department will close Aug. 31 if the County Board approves a contract to provide Forest Lake with law enforcement services, said Police Chief Rick Peterson.
The board, which is expected to discuss the issue at next week’s meeting, got an earful from a room full of unhappy citizens when it met Tuesday morning.
“Despite the wishes of hundreds and even thousands of Forest Lake residents, we were met with deaf ears,” Russell Peterson, the chief’s father, told commissioners.
Peterson and 21 others implored the board to reject any contract calling for county policing in their city, which has a population of 19,000.
High school students, meanwhile, streamed out of afternoon classes and marched to City Hall to show support for police. They chanted and hoisted handmade signs; one read, “Our choice, Our city, Our cops.”
Coordination of the student protest, which wasn’t sanctioned by the school district, began in the morning, apparently through social media, and involved about two-thirds of the students.
“We respect their feelings,” said Ross Bennett, a district spokesman. “They’re kids who feel strongly about this as an issue and see what’s happening in their community.”
The district has four police resource officers, including one at the high school, and Bennett said that Forest Lake police “are very active in all areas of our schools.”
School officials didn’t try to stop the students, who were unexcused. But the school also “stressed the importance of being safe and constructive,” said Principal Steve Massey.
Chief Peterson said Tuesday that the students’ support for police was “overwhelming and appreciated.” Policing of the city would continue uninterrupted until “our last day of employment,” he added.
Mayor Ben Winnick, who cast the deciding City Council vote Monday night, said the switch to Washington County would save the city $385,000 a year and put three more officers on the streets.
He and the other two City Council members who voted to disband the department did not respond to requests for comment.
The department’s budget this year is just over $4 million, with city taxpayers covering about $3.3 million. The Sheriff’s Office proposal anticipates an annual cost of about $2.9 million, with a one-time cost of about $88,000.
Chief Peterson said in mid-April that his department had been “very fiscally responsible” and that his budget compared well with similar-sized cities such as Stillwater, Rosemount and Farmington.
The Sheriff’s Office contracts with several Washington County cities for enforcement, including Hugo, Mahtomedi and Lake Elmo. But Sheriff Dan Starry and his predecessor, Bill Hutton, said the Sheriff’s Office didn’t initiate the Forest Lake proposal.
Starry has said that if the county takes over policing for the city, all Forest Lake officers will be considered for deputy positions but would have to apply for those jobs.
Most Forest Lake residents who addressed commissioners Tuesday commended the Sheriff’s Office, but said they were concerned about retaining local control of a police force that they said was strongly supportive of the community.
Several alleged corruption in city government and asked that the county investigate the police decision.
“Our slogan in Forest Lake is ‘Good as it gets,’ ” said resident Chris Martin. “Please listen to our community, please help us. Please hear us, do not accept this contract, it is wrong.”
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