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Despite more scrutiny and criticism, area police officers and cadets committed to serving

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North Dakota Highway Trooper Adam Malafa, left, shows Trooper Isaiah Jackson, who is training with the state agency, equipment inside a squad car Tuesday, June 30, at a weigh station west of Fargo on Interstate 94. April Baumgarten / The Forum

FARGO — When Isaiah Jackson joined the Law Enforcement Training Academy in Bismarck last January, there was no way to predict he would become an officer in the midst of a pandemic or police protests, let alone both.

If he was given a second chance, knowing what he knows now, the North Dakota Highway Patrol officer who has been on the road working for three weeks still would have chosen the career.

“This isn’t just your regular job,” he said. “This is a calling. ... Yes, there is always going to be backlash when something happens, but that doesn’t prevent me from still caring.”

Law enforcement agencies around the U.S. have been hit with heavy criticism since George Floyd died in late May while in Minneapolis police custody. Protesters have called for an end to police brutality and want sweeping policy changes. Some cities also are looking at defunding or disbanding police departments.

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Officer Brett Musich documents a service call Wednesday, July 1, in Moorhead. He says that he likes that every day as a police officer is different. Michael Vosburg / Forum Photo Editor

Still, cadets like Grant Jaeche of East Grand Forks continue to have an interest in law enforcement despite negative rhetoric aimed at officers.

“I don’t think we would be human if we said it didn’t concern us at all,” said the son of a homicide detective.

The criticism doesn’t deter Jaeche. He said it's up to him and other cadets to better the reputation of law enforcement by doing their best to protect and serve their communities.

Bobbi Jo Nobles of Karlstad, Minn., a cadet like Jaeche at Lake Region State College, said developments and discussions about the future of law enforcement are intimidating, but it’s important to remember the reason officers go into the field.

“We’re human, of course, but you can’t let that deter you from helping your community," she said.

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Students with the Lake Region State College Law Enforcement and Peace Training Program learn the ins and outs of being an officer. Submitted by LRSC

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‘Why ... go into this profession?’

Lt. John Maritato, director of the law enforcement and peace officer training program at Devils Lake-based LRSC, said academy numbers are positive — there are 28 students this year.

“I ask the students, ‘Why do you want to go into this profession, especially in today’s age and with what’s going on?’” he said. “And almost everyone of them, their comments are that they want to help the public.”

North Dakota Highway Patrol Sgt. Luke Hendrickson, based in Fargo, said his division has't seen a recent decline in potential recruits as protests grip U.S. cities. He did note a downward trend in applicants over the last decade.

“There have been some recruits that get through a portion of the overall process,” Hendrickson said. “They might decide it's not for them, but it's not anything other than normal.”

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Moorhead Police Chief Shannon Monroe said his department has seen a significant drop in applicants ever since protests gripped Ferguson, Mo., in 2014 after Michael Brown was fatally shot by a police officer.
“At that time we were running about 130 applicants when we would do a hiring, and now we were running around 20,” he said, recalling the dropoff.

More recently, applicant numbers have remained steady, he said.

Officers in the Fargo-Moorhead area have not been immune to protests, riots and some criticism. Monroe said those who condemn use of force tend to not have all the information.

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“It kind of has a tendency to make it sound like there's an epidemic of things going on in every community every day,” he said.

Moorhead Sgt. Chris Martin said he knows a person considering a law enforcement career who because of recent events is having second thoughts.

“He’s at a crossroads right now, wondering what to do,” Martin said.

Teryn Amaya, a Moorhead native who joined his hometown police department last Monday, said his drive to be an officer hasn’t changed in light of the current climate. Growing up, he had many encounters with officers.

He saw them as influential mentors, and those encounters made him who he is today.

“That’s what really has kept my eyes on being an officer, knowing that it could be a life-changing event for an individual or others that I'm dealing with," Amaya said.

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Students with the Lake Region State College Law Enforcement and Peace Training Program learn the ins and outs of being an officer. Submitted by LRSC

Rhetoric not unique

Rhetoric surrounding law enforcement today is not unique, said North Dakota Highway Patrol Trooper Adam Malafa. The Fargo native who has been with the agency for nine years said it is reminiscent of talk during the Ferguson riots as well as the months-long Dakota Access Pipeline protests four years ago in North Dakota.

“For those of us that have been here for at least five years, we've dealt with this already,” he said. “It’s just another ebb and flow of what we do on a daily basis.”

Hendrickson, who has been on the force since 2003, noted there are more platforms to express anti-officer rhetoric, but hearing those criticisms has always been a part of the job, he said.

The Floyd protests that started in Minneapolis hit closer to home, said Moorhead Police Officer Michael Fildes. He said he understands why people are upset and frustrated.

During the protests in the Fargo-Moorhead area, he noted there were very nice people in the crowds who thanked him for his service.

"But I definitely had a couple of moments where I thought, 'Holy buckets. There are a lot of angry people here and not so many of us,'" he said.

Scrutiny of police actions is also changing. The Zimmerman, Minn., native recalled a traffic stop he made a few weeks ago.

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"All of the sudden we had four cars in the parking lot videotaping us," he said.
Fildes said he never intends to hurt people or violate rights. He said bystanders may not understand why police are making a stop.

He calls himself a solutions-based officer.

"No matter what, when I go somewhere, I have to make it better," Fildes said, quoting former Police Chief David Ebinger.

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Students with the Lake Region State College Law Enforcement and Peace Training Program learn the ins and outs of being an officer. Submitted by LRSC

Positives outweigh negatives

Negative police incidents are rare compared to positive police interactions, Fildes said. Motorists often honk in support and some people buy him energy drinks or coffee.

Other local officers also say they have had more people expressing appreciation and support in recent weeks.

Moorhead Police Officer Brett Musich, who has been with the department since 2017, said criticism can “get you down,” but he is open to listening. The International Falls, Minn., native joked about his father, who was police chief in his hometown, telling him to find a job where people would appreciate him.

“He actually ended up being my first boss,” Musich said of his father, who started mentoring him once he saw how passionate he was about becoming an officer.

Negative thoughts creep up during tough times for officers, Musich said, but he has noticed the appreciation and support from his community, even if it is just a friendly wave from a passerby.

“We don’t need those thank yous, but people don’t understand how far that goes with us and how much better that can make our day,” he said.

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The Sept. 11 attacks inspired Martin to seek out a career in law enforcement, and that drive to help others hasn’t waned, he said. He gets frustrated at times when people lump officers into one group.
“I specifically wanted to work in Moorhead because I was living here, and I wanted to make it as good a community as I could," Martin said.

Amaya said he has used the anti-police rhetoric as motivation to show residents that officers are there to help.

“When we hear that negative feedback, we take it to heart,” Amaya said. “We try to adapt and adjust to what we can do to change their mindset."

The thought that a call for service can turn dangerous is always in the back of law enforcement minds, officers said.

Malafa, who comes from a family full of officers, said he was at the scene of a February 2016 domestic call when Fargo Police Officer Jason Moszer was fatally shot. Malafa also was shot at, he said.

The recent killing of Grand Forks Police Officer Cody Holte has brought that danger back to the forefront.

“It's part of getting ready for work every day,” Malafa said. “Every day we have to put on a uniform that we know can automatically make us a target.”

April Baumgarten joined The Forum in February 2019 as an investigative reporter. She grew up on a ranch 10 miles southeast of Belfield, N.D., where her family raises Hereford cattle. She double majored in communications and history/political science at the University of Jamestown, N.D.
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