Wyoming public safety director looks back at time in Wyoming

When former Wyoming Public Safety Director Paul Hoppe came to the city as the chief of police on May 11, 2009, he knew he had a lot of challenges in front of him. On Jan. 2, Hoppe said goodbye to his career in law enforcement and said hello to retirement.

Growing up in the lower St. Croix Valley, Hoppe knew he wanted to stay in the northeast metro. Then a sergeant, he was looking for a transition to chief during his long tenure at the Oak Park Heights Police Department. He found his final home in law enforcement in the town of Wyoming, but he knew it wouldn’t be an easy task.

He was charged with developing a new system for policing shortly after the merger of the city of Wyoming with the township, all while working out of the mechanic’s garage, the then- home to the police department. The merger meant there were now seven times the square miles and double the population to cover. The city’s policing records were almost all still kept on paper in filing cabinets in the tight quarters already, and other technology needed upgrades, as well. But it was a challenge he relished as it gave him the opportunity to flex his creative and methodical brain. 

“Part of what attracted me to Wyoming was you’ve got to take and grow the department, and you have to do it systematically [in a way] that makes sense, and you have to do it quickly, because all the sudden your service area is more than double the population and seven times the square miles. That in itself was a challenge,” Hoppe said.

What was unforeseen, however, was just how heavily the recession would impact that growth of the department at the exact time of the merger when he was hoping to expand the department. But Hoppe wasn’t complaining— instead, he saw the difficulties posed by a restricted budget as nothing more than a challenge. Growing the department in personnel meant finding more space for the department. In addition, the department needed to upgrade and add new technology, which the city worked through the county to scrape together or cost-share things to make updates more affordable to the city.

“We had to do it at a time when there wasn’t a windfall of money. We were scraping for every dime and being fiscally responsible to the community and keeping those costs as low as possible. It certainly required some creativity and a systematic approach,” Hoppe said.

The department also utilized volunteers and hired part-time employees before eventually transitioning them to full-time status as a way to manage the necessary tasks without going over budget, he said. That included the current city administrator, Robb Linwood, who at the time was the director of economic development for the city. Linwood would work with Hoppe to build the administrative component of the police department. It’s something Hoppe said shows an “overall commitment by employees.” 

“Those are some of the creative ways that we started building at a time which was challenging, but we built based on a merger,” Hoppe said.

He’d eventually grow the seven-member department to 10 full-time officers, an administrative officer, and a crime analyst. And in 2012, Hoppe added another role to his duty as chief of police when he became the city’s public safety director, merging the oversight of both the police and fire departments into one role.

Community policing

In his nearly 13 years in Wyoming, Hoppe has led the small town police department into a spotlight he couldn’t have predicted. From the popularity of the department’s social media presence to the success of the Growth Through Opportunity program, he never sought national recognition — it was simply a happy accident that came from his vision and focus on what he most excited him about the job: creating community. 

“I can remember in my interview, they asked, ‘What is it that you’re really going to bring to Wyoming?’ And I said, ‘I’m going to build a sense of community around the police department,’” Hoppe said. 

Since that interview, departments across the state have come to view Wyoming as a model for strong community policing. 

“A lot of organizations or police departments around the state look at us, as a department, as an example of outstanding community engagement,” Hoppe said.

Sometimes that looked like developing and expanding community events, like the city’s National Night Out, the bike rodeo, or the partnership with the nonprofit Stomp Out Suicide. But it also looked toward where Hoppe excelled: a systematic approach in innovation and creativity.

“That was always one of my main focal points and drive in decision making and how we did things: our social media page, our community events, our relationships that we’ve built with our community, with our business owners, with our residents, has always been the nucleus around what we do,” Hoppe said. 

The goal was twofold: to add an approachability and humanization between the city’s police officers and its residents; and so residents would not only feel comfortable but be willing to actively reach out to the department with tips to solve or prevent crimes.

How he accomplished that, he said, came in several different ways, all stemming from that vision.

“I think to be innovative, you’ve got to be courageous, and you need to do things others aren’t willing to do, and you need to take calculated risks,” he said.

The police department is probably most notable for its efforts on creating a social media presence that has captured the attention of the nation with its wit and entertainment. While the department had a Facebook page, it wasn’t getting traction or followings online. When former officer Tony Zerwas approached Hoppe about starting a Twitter page, Hoppe was open to the idea, and the two began developing what it could look like. 

“The premise behind community policing has always been that we’re in partnership with the community to create safe communities and solve crimes. Social media is a mechanism to accomplish that,” Hoppe said.

The amount of attention and success not only garnered national attention, but also national recognition and calls for help from other agencies, including the FBI and even the IRS.

“I’m going to tell you when the IRS calls and says, ‘Hey, we want to sit down and have a conversation with you,’ that kind of scares the [crap] out of a police chief. … I don’t think I heard the next five sentences after that,” Hoppe said, initially even thinking it was a prank or scam. “I sat down with them and they said: ‘We really like how you brand your organization and how you humanize it. We think you can help us.’” He flew out to IRS locations in Washington, D.C., California and Ohio to give a presentation on ways he said social media can help humanize and improve the perception of an institution. 

Hoppe said for him, the biggest highlight in his time as Wyoming Public Safety Director was the implementation of the Growth Through Opportunity program in 2018, a program in which police departments team up with intellectually disabled volunteers. Shawn Sieleni, a White Bear Lake graduate with Down syndrome, was the first GTO cadet for the department. While Hoppe said he “didn’t invent the wheel” — the credits for the program go to a police department on the East Coast, he said — he tweaked it to work with the department. It was another effort to focus on community involvement, and not just “take a class” but to “invite them into our house,” he said. Hoppe still speaks with Sieleni at least once a month, who still comes around and volunteers with the department occasionally.

“I think it’s one of my highlights,” Hoppe said. “In my 31 years, I’ll look back and say we were courageous as a department.”

For the second year in a row, the department won the Excellence in Innovation award by the police chief’s association for the Growth Through Opportunity program. It has since picked up speed with new programs popping up across the state and country, and Hoppe frequently gets phone calls from other departments wondering how to implement the program — most recently from the city of Willmar. The program has also been picked up by the National Sheriffs’ Association, and while Hoppe doesn’t take credit for the program, he said the department’s social media presence has helped spread the word about the program — another way in which his vision of community policing has helped make a difference across the country and not just in the town of Wyoming.

All of those different avenues of community policing have made the Wyoming Police Department and former Chief Hoppe sought-after resources for teaching. From major departments across the country, like the Denver Police Department, to a little closer to home with the Bloomington Police Department, Hoppe frequently has received phone calls asking for assistance on a range of issues, mostly on social media usage and the Growth Through Opportunity program. 

“I think that’s humbling, knowing whatever we’re doing here in Wyoming is having an effect on our profession beyond Wyoming. …You’re proud of what you’ve created, but you’re humbled by the response,” Hoppe said.

Time to leave

As he neared the end of his career, many of Hoppe’s colleagues who have retired offered him advice. A common thread he heard was to go out on top.

“Don’t wait too long where you’re on the down slope, and you’re just exhausted and tired and you’re simply just occupying the chair. Don’t go two years too late, go one year too early,” Hoppe said of others’ advice to him. 

When Hoppe was coming up on his 30 years in law enforcement, he and his wife began to talk about a potential retirement timeline. 

“It was really, ‘I think I’ve taken it as far as I can, and I think it’s time for somebody else to carry it to the next level,’” Hoppe said. “And I don’t want to stay too long that you simply become jaded and tired and exhausted and you stand in the way of progress. … For my wife and I, the timing, it was right.”

But Hoppe isn’t retiring with no work ahead: He’s trading in his uniform and badge for a suite and laptop as director of sales and marketing for ProPhoenix Corporation, a public safety software company. The new job, he said, was unintended when he submitted his resignation letter in September. But when ProPhoenix got wind of his retirement, they reached out with a job offer, and Hoppe decided to try his hand in the corporate world.

“So, who knew? ... I didn’t,” Hoppe joked. He and his wife also started a real estate business two years ago, which they currently maintain.

As he leaves, he said he only has one regret: still being in the old township building. 

“For [13] years, that was one thing I wanted to see get accomplished was a home for our public safety [departments],” Hoppe said, adding all he wants for the city employees is to create a place where officers and firefighters can decontaminate. 

“I think we owe that to our employees, to make sure they have a safe, healthy working environment,” Hoppe said, though he recognizes the expense. (For more information regarding the initial plans for a new public safety building the Wyoming City Council is considering, visit tinyurl.com/2rnvkhwa.)

“Everything else, I think we as a department didn’t just accomplish things, I think we excelled at them.”

Hoppe spent his final hours working on a proposal asking for help from the state legislature in funding the city’s new proposed public safety building. Then he left, “like a pair of blue jeans that gets lost,” he said, and hung his hat on a career that spanned more than three decades. 

Looking back at a storied career, Hoppe’s accomplishments in his 31 years in law enforcement aren’t lost on him, but they aren’t everything to him, either. 

“Your legacy as you go forward, it’s not the things you did, it’s what you leave behind. It’s really the people that are going to take this place farther than anything that I contributed. It’s going to be fun to watch from the sidelines,” Hoppe said.

Hannah Davis is the Area Editor at the Forest Lake Times. You can contact her at hannah.davis@ecm-inc.com or (763)233-0709

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