Long before there were cell phones, laptops and fancy squad cars, Niel Nielsen took on the role of police officer for the city of Plymouth. “My badge was No. 4,” he recalls, since at that time the entirety of the police force consisted of just four men. Nielsen’s role began in 1965, just seven years after Claude Lein was appointed the first police officer for the town. Prior to that, constables were the main force for fighting crime, but with miles of country roads and farmsteads, and only pockets of residential areas, the township felt far away from the troubles of the city.
A typical day back in the 1960s consisted of patrolling the 36 square miles of Plymouth. Since there were only a few officers, they’d work their shifts alone, looking for stolen cars, checking the doors of local businesses every night and waiting for an emergency on the car radio. Back then, all emergency calls in the area went to the Hennepin County sheriff’s radio, which then dispatched to all surrounding communities. “If something serious happened, we relied on the other communities,” Nielsen says. But with only one man on duty at a time, it made it difficult to leave your post to help.
Plymouth was a quiet, small town, so Minneapolis felt far away despite the occasional crime that spilled over from the big city. Veteran Plymouth police officer Nielsen recalls, “We had our share of high-speed chases.”
Nielsen once received a radio call about an armed robbery taking place at Medicine Lake Country House, a mere mile from the shopping mall parking lot he was sitting in. Before he could take action, the perpetrator’s blue Pontiac Bonneville appeared, squealing into the parking lot completely unaware of his presence. Racing from a fleet of other police, the suspects had run right towards Nielsen—who obliged by making the arrest before the rest of the police in chase arrived.
Since those early days, Plymouth has become a bustling and vibrant community with added complexities and challenges. Rightly so, the police department has evolved as well. “There has been a lot of change over the last 50 years, whether you look at the vehicles, the technology, the equipment or our facilities,” says Mike Goldstein, current Plymouth chief of police. Today there are 68 authorized sworn positions, 15 civilian employees and 70 volunteers. Instead of just one patrolling car, they now have around 40 different vehicles with added features and technology. “If you were an officer back in 1969 and got into one of those vehicles, and then walked into one in 2012, the only thing that would function the same would be the fact that the car has gears and can drive somewhere,” Goldstein says. Their cars today are designed specifically for the work they do, with improved safety features, a beefed-up suspension and a sophisticated engine. “It’s a fine-tuned machine instead of an ordinary vehicle that was put into police use,” Goldstein says.
One of the biggest changes in recent years is the advent of technology. “Back when Niel began his career, everything was done by pen and paper, which worked at that time,” Goldstein says. “But today, with the growth of the community and our calls for service, in order to do it well we need to incorporate technology.” Today the force is virtually paperless, with everything done electronically from writing speeding citations to archiving audio interviews.
Despite these changes over the years, the foundation of the Plymouth Police Department remains the same. “I think that there are certain things that will never change,” Goldstein says. “The constant is that we are available to the public to help solve problems—that was true back in the 60s and it is true today.”