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Mandan police officer Beth Kohler is a member of the department's patrol division. Kohler has been with the city's police department for four years.

The Mandan Police Department has struggled to recruit and retain police officers, but law enforcement officials hope a decision to offer fully paid family health insurance to all officers will bring positive changes.

The police department is facing the lowest number of applicants in at least three years. And more than half of its officers have less than six years of experience.

In 2018, the city commission approved a 100% paid family health insurance plan for police officers. Since the decision, at least two officers said the decision was the primary reason they joined the department. Before, new hires were expected to pay about $900 per month for family coverage. Officers would have to work for seven years before insurance became fully paid.

“We were having a really hard time hiring people because they just could not afford family health insurance when they started,” Deputy Chief Lori Flaten said. “And as you are hiring younger people, with families, they need health insurance.”

Flaten said the change likely is the reason the department had a full staff from December 2018 until August 2019. It was the first time the department had a full staff in more than five years.

“There were people who we were interviewing that the only reason they interviewed with us was because they knew that was coming,” Flaten said.

Patrol Officer Mike Kapella joined the Mandan Police Department from the Bismarck Police Department last year. He started his career in Mandan, where he worked for five years.

He said the Mandan City Commission decision to offer officers paid family health insurance was the main reason he returned.

Patrol Officer Beth Kohler said not having fully paid insurance was the reason she left law enforcement in 2011. After four years working as a patrol officer and detective, she left to work for the Morton County state attorney’s office, she said. In December 2018, she returned to the Mandan force.

“It’s amazing to be able to do something you love to do every day and be able to support your family, and not be stressed out because you can’t make (ends) meet,” she said.

The Mandan Police Department has 36 sworn officers with one open position. The officer who left accepted a federal job in August, the deputy chief said.

The department offers $44,530 as a starting salary, but officers coming from other departments with “seven or more years of experience” can start at up to $48,530. This is significantly less than police at two other North Dakota cities with populations between 20,000 and 30,000. The Dickinson Police Department offers $51,584 as an initial salary, while the Williston Police Department offers $63,383 as starting pay.

Flaten said her department was hoping the city would approve a salary increase as part of the 2020 budget.

“We’ve gotten two of the three things that we wanted to work on to retain people and to have a better chance of hiring good people,” Flaten said a couple of weeks ago. “So the last one we have to work on is salary.”

On Tuesday, the city approved the final budget, which includes creating another officer position and implementing a citywide salary increase of 2%.

Both Dickinson and Williston increased salaries in general during western North Dakota’s recent oil boom. However, in the past 12 months, Mandan officers didn’t leave to move west, Flaten said. Besides the officer who accepted a federal position, one officer was “let go” for not meeting standards in field training, while another left to work for the Morton County Sheriff’s Office.

The Mandan Police Department turnover rate in 2018 was 7.5%. This year, Mandan police had no turnover through June.

Flaten said her staff often receives job applications from people with no training or experience in law enforcement.

Fifty-five percent of Mandan officers have served less than five years, according to figures provided in August. The percentage of officers who have served between five and 10 years is 16%, while 13% have served 10 to 20 years. The percentage for officers who have served more than 20 years also is 13%.

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Reach Andy Tsubasa Field at 701-250-8264 or andy.field@bismarcktribune.com.

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City Government Reporter