Growing Up in Uniform

Trainees Leif Johnson, Beth Meier and Melissa Norwig — who met as Squirt hockey players 20 years ago — are on patrol with training officers for the next four weeks as they prepare to be sworn in as full-time members of the Moorhead Police Department. (Photo/Nancy Hanson.)

Nancy Edmonds Hanson

They grew up together on the ice – three youngsters who swatted their first pucks around at the local rinks and, years later, donned orange and black as members of the Moorhead High School Spuds’ varsity hockey squads.

Graduating in 2013, they went their separate ways. But now Melissa Norwig, Beth Meier and Leif Johnson are together again on a different tight-knit team that none imagined in their skating days: The three are wearing the uniform of the Moorhead Police Department. Along with fellow M State graduate Martin Hayes, they make up the newest crop of recruits preparing to serve and protect the city’s residents.

They are part of the solution to a problem plaguing law enforcement agencies across the country: a dwindling supply of young men and women applying to join the force. The MPD started the year with 13 openings on its roster of 61 sworn officers. This latest quartet of probationary officers, along with seven others hired earlier this year, brings the vacancies down to two; more interviews are taking place right now.

Melissa, Beth, Leif and Martin exemplify the kind of recruits the department is looking for. All four applied to the MPD a year ago while wrapping up their two years in the criminal justice program at M State. They went on for eight weeks of hands-on training in the Skills program at Alexandria Technical and Community College, receiving conditional job offers from the MPD on the day before graduation. Then began an intensive series of interviews and background investigation to insure they were a good fit for the field.

All passed the rigorous screening process. The next step was the four-week New Officers’ Academy here in Moorhead. Conducted by a local officer, it focuses on essential day-to-day skills, from the department’s rules and procedures to operation of it computer system, defense tactics, more firearm training, and the basics of traffic and felony stops and building searches. Between the classroom and working scenarios, they also learned more about communication, both with the public and with mentally ill individuals.

One typical aspect of the academy in which the locally grown recruits required less study was the basics of getting around the city. After all, they grew up here.

Last week, the four finally suited up for the first time and began patrolling the city with seasoned field training officers at their side. Administrative Sgt. Chris Martin describes their next four months as a four-step program. During step one, the trainee spends 20 shifts with one of the department’s ten field training officers, who handles the majority of the work. The second step is taking on about 60% of handling the 10 to 15 calls each officer receives every day; the third, 90%. After the final step – a 10-day evaluation by the field training officer – the fledgling policeman or policewoman is sworn in as a full-time member of the force.

None of the three hockey comrades had a firm calling in mind when they were handed their diplomas at MHS. Beth weighed the possibilities of either joining the Marines or becoming a first responder. Melissa and Leif had an easier time envisioning a future in law enforcement, since both grew up in law enforcement families. Melissa’s father, Richard Norwig, worked with the Moorhead Police and Clay County Sheriff’s Department while she was growing up. Both of Leif’s parents were also in the field; his father is MPD Lt. Dave Johnson, while his mother Katie works at the Clay County Correctional Center.

“I started thinking seriously about law enforcement when I was 19,” Beth says, citing the elder Norwig and Johnson, along with Lt. Chris Carey, as role models who inspired her. “I jumped around for a couple years, trying to figure out what I was passionate about. When our daughter was born 14 months ago,” she says, “I knew I wanted to do more and be a positive influence in her life.”

For Melissa, who was attending NDSU as a political science major, her future became clear after a ride-along with a Fargo police officer for a criminal justice class. “That’s when I knew,” she says. “I’d been thinking about going to law school like my mother, but I realized this is what I want to do. I wanted something more active.”

Leif, too, started college at MSUM without clear direction, though he says now that law enforcement was a definite calling. “I grew up watching ‘Blue Bloods,’” he confides, “and I could see the difference my own parents were making in the community.” Marriage and the birth of his sons, now 2 and 4, he says, “put me on the straight and narrow.” He joined the Minnesota Army National Guard, then enrolled at M State.

The three credit Jeff Nelson, who retired from the Moorhead force in 2015, for fanning the flame. As coordinator of M State’s program, his connections forge a bond between students and professionals in the field. “The way he talks about the MPD makes everyone want to work here,” Leif says.

Since they’re likely to know many of the citizens with whom they come in contact, Melissa concedes some sticky situations could arise. “But I think it’s going to be more of an advantage,” she suggests. “Being from here, I care even more about doing this job. I want to help make this a safe place for my family, my friends and my community.”

Looking back on early lessons from playing their favorite sport, the young officers say hockey has served them well as they prepare for their careers. “Try to absorb as much as you can. Take the extra steps to prepare yourself,” Melissa advises. She adds, “Build up your physical ability months before you go. You can’t do it overnight.”

Leif says, “Hockey teaches you to work within a team. You have to trust the people you’re with. And you can always tell who has put in the work and who hasn’t.”

Beth, a goalie back in her high school days, adds a bit of counsel that’s certain to ring as true on the street as it did on the ice: “Don’t give up,” she urges. “Never, never quit ’til the game is over.”

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