Two months down, plenty more to go


Paul Schnell

New Inver Grove Heights police chief reflects on first few months on the job

 

On Dec. 11, Paul Schnell officially stepped into the role of police chief in Inver Grove Heights. The start date came almost a month after the city council selected Schnell, 56, from five final candidates for the job.

Now, with two months in the position under his belt, Schnell is looking at how to help move the department forward.

 

A long career

A Mendota Heights resident, Schnell announced his retirement as chief of the Maplewood Police Department in June of last year, but that didn’t last long.

“I really missed law enforcement and working in it,” Schnell said in an interview last year, pointing out he has no doubt in his mind that good policing can have a “phenomenal” impact on a community. 

Speaking on Jan. 24, Schnell said his first months on the new job were full of learning. He said he met with every police department employee and is starting to meet with city department heads and community groups. He has plans to meet with the school district and faith communities. 

At the same time there was an internal assessment going on to pinpoint the strengths of the department, and what things could be worked on.

“The assessment, a month in now, is that this is a really solid police department with some incredibly talented people,” Schnell said.

 

A community survey

Within the first week of being on the job, the department posted a community survey on policing, something Schnell said he felt was important to do right away. He’s prioritized deepening community engagement with the department and having community input be a part of what guides it.

More than 450 people responded to the survey — Schnell said the feedback and information provided was “incredibly helpful.”

A group from the police department cross analyzed the data to get a better sense of what things need to be focused on in different parts of the community. 

While the survey was mostly positive, Schnell said it did show areas that could use more community outreach. For instance, few respondents were people of color.

“We obviously aren’t reaching that segment of the community and we need to do better there,” he said. 

The police department group presented the survey’s findings to the city council at its Feb. 5 work session.

Officer Trent Anderson said the 39-question survey showed more than 50 percent of the respondents were satisfied with the level of proactive police patrols in the city.

However, nearly 50 percent of the respondents said they were unsure if officers were familiar with issues important to residents.  

Respondents said locations that could use more police attention include several city parks and places were large numbers of youth congregate. 

Respondents were asked about police body cameras, and 27 percent thought they were important to document evidence. 

Anderson said they would like to know why 6 percent of the respondents felt the police department did not treat people fairly.

Sgt. Adam Wiederhoeft said community priorities identified by the survey include preventing thefts from vehicles, traffic safety, stopping burglaries, youth delinquency and dealing with domestic and family violence. He said the department has discussed ways to address each issue, and the group would be back before the council later this year to provide an update.

 

Here for the community

From the start of the job, Schnell said he’s seen a desire at the city level to deepen community engagement with the police department. He’s met with each city council member, one-on-one, to have priority discussions.

“From a policing standpoint today, especially in a community like Inver Grove Heights that is going to experience some considerable growth over the next 10 years, the positive relationships between the community and their police department is something that was a clear value expressed by every single one of the council members,” Schnell said. 

When he joined the Inver Grove Heights Neighbors Chat Facebook page, Schnell introduced himself to the online community. He said that in some closed internet groups, law enforcement officials are not always welcome, but he asked if he could join the group as the city’s police chief.

“For me, I wanted to be more overt and explicit about it. It opens up a vehicle for communication directly with me,” Schnell said, adding his message was positively received.

So far, Schnell said his outreach to the community has been focused on the regional chamber of commerce — an area that he said could have deeper engagement. Involvement with the school district, and the police department’s partnership with it, is next on the list.

As the weather improves, Schnell said things like door-to-door visits with businesses and other in-person contacts will start to happen, adding that the more connected the community is, the safer it is. 

 

The next steps

Schnell said he has made a commitment that by April of this year, a plan would be in place for the department through 2040. This would begin to help the city and its leadership get it in line with the city’s comprehensive plan.

“It helps people think about, based on a number of assumptions that can change as time goes by, what the department would end up looking like,” Schnell said, adding it would make future decision making easier.

Immediate plans include redesigning the department webpage and including a transparency center, allowing residents to read the entire police policy manual. Statistics such as arrests, broken down into different categories and other things like calls for service, will be published as well. The new webpage is also planned to make it easier to connect with an officer. 

On an individual basis, Schnell said each council member had other priorities and concerns including distracted driving, crime prevention, body cameras and diversification of the police work force. 

Out of the meeting with employees came a work plan for 2018 that addresses various themes and issues with dates by which to address them.

“There are things here that were very clear priorities and values that the council was asking for and that were very reasonable as well,” he said.

In all, Schnell said he wants his time at the department to be spent building the relationship between the police department and the community and giving the department a strong sense of direction.

 


– Hannah Burlingame can be reached at 651-748-7824 or hburlingame@lillienews.com

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