ST. PETER — Community engagement looks likely to be high on the priority list for St. Peter’s next police chief, with all five candidates stressing the importance of it during a public meet-and-greet Wednesday.
Each candidate introduced themselves, gave presentations and answered questions during the event at the Community Center. It was the first in a series of meetings planned with the public, various community leaders and city officials before a possible appointment by the City Council in June.
The candidates include three members of the St. Peter Police Department, Matt Grochow, Paul Hagen and Keith Ruffing. Joining them in the final running is the police chief in Henderson, Dmitri Ikonitski, and a police commander in Salt Lake City, Victor Siebeneck III.
They answered questions on why they’re seeking the job, what changes they’ve noticed in policing over the years and how they’d plan to facilitate change as the city’s police chief.
Ikonitski, who’s worked in the Henderson police department since January 2020, spoke about how he was motivated to apply for the position because he knows St. Peter is a great city with a lot of history. He has a son who goes to school in St. Peter.
Police departments are needing to adapt to new standards in how they operate, he said in response to the question on policing changes. Trainings will play a part in facilitating the changes, but so will improving relationships with the community.
As police chief, he said he’d want to evaluate existing policies and observe them in action while seeking feedback from community members.
His goal in St. Peter would be much the same as it is in Henderson, he said.
“Just like in my community, my mission statement is to keep Henderson a safe place to raise a family,” he said. “That’s going to be the same philosophy if I’m chosen to be the chief of police here.”
Ruffing, a St. Peter police officer since 1999, spoke about how he applied because he loves the city and sees it as a natural step for him. He said he could bring a different perspective to the role along with opportunities for change.
On what changes he’s noticed in policing over the last decade, he brought up the rise of technology and how just about everyone can now record interactions with the police. Being recorded doesn’t cause him concern, he said, because he sees it as evidence of how fair he is.
He also noted social media helps police departments get information out to the public quicker.
As police chief, he’d plan to reach out to leaders from faith communities, education sectors and social groups to grow relations between them and the department.
“For me, the easiest way to do that is through transparency, which is made very possible with the technology we have at our disposal these days,” he said.
Hagen, St. Peter’s interim chief since the retirement of longtime Chief Matt Peters in early May, has been with the department since 1992. He spoke about how he’s always aspired to be the police chief, feels he’s ready for it and sees it as a way to give back to a community that’s been good to him.
He, too, brought up technology when answering the question on changes in policing, saying technology holds police accountable.
Another change he noted is the use of force by police. Officers shouldn’t be afraid to use the authority they have, he said, but they need to be well trained on it and training has always been a top priority for the department.
With the department being 15 officers at full staff in a community with 12,000 residents, he said the police can’t effect change by telling everyone how it’ll be done — engagement will be needed.
“Everybody has a stake in this effective change,” he said. “It’s not an overnight thing. It’s not a rapid thing. It’s a slow process of us getting to know each other, learning about cultural differences and really working to strive to make our community better.”
Grochow, a St. Peter police detective who’s been with the department since 1991, spoke about how it’s been his dream to be police chief for many years.
He pointed to the connections he’s made in the community as the police liaison officer for Gustavus Adolphus College and the St. Peter Regional Treatment Center.
On what’s changed in policing over the years, he brought up the need for more humility when departments make mistakes. Departments need to own up to mistakes to maintain integrity, and he said his door would always be open to community input.
To facilitate change, he said there’s a need to reconnect with residents through community-oriented policing. Appointing more liaisons to different community groups could be a way to make sure officers hear their concerns and stay transparent.
“That’s the only way we strengthen our position here as a police department,” he said. “People need to have faith in what we’re doing. Keeping those lines of communication open at all times is going to be crucial.”
Siebeneck, a division commander in Salt Lake City who’s worked in the police department there since 2001, shared how he’s been preparing himself for leadership roles and was excited at the prospect of coming to St. Peter.
His wife is from the area, and they have family and friends in Minnesota.
Technology has been one of the biggest changes he’s noticed in policing as well, allowing both information and misinformation to spread more widely in communities. He said it makes proper training, better communication and collaboration especially important.
Siebeneck agreed with the others about the importance of community engagement and relationship building.
“Relationships lead to trust, and trust leads to collaboration and working together for a common goal of solving community issues and crime problems that police can handle,” he said. “Police officers are oftentimes the only interaction that citizens or community members have with their government, and it’s imperative we field the best trained, most compassionate, most understanding officers that are available while holding ourselves accountable to the community.”
After the event, held both in-person and virtually, residents could submit feedback forms to the city. The candidates were set to have private meetings with community leaders afterward, as well as interviews with City Administrator Todd Prafke and another public meeting with the City Council and Civil Service Commission in the coming days.
Wednesday’s meet and greet will be posted on the City of St. Peter’s Youtube page.