When Captain James Wells B.A. ’98, M.A. ’12 first graduated from the University of St. Thomas with a bachelor’s degree in criminal justice, he was well on his way toward realizing a goal he’d had since childhood: becoming a police officer.
In 2000, Wells landed a job as a reserve with Washington County and was soon promoted to deputy. He remained with Washington County for four years before presented with an opportunity to give back to the place he grew up: the Prairie Island Indian Community.
Located in southeastern Minnesota on an island in the Mississippi River, Prairie Island falls within the city limits of Red Wing, despite being located 14 miles north of the town. Until 2003, the community itself had no licensed police department – it was dependent on Red Wing for law enforcement.
“Goodhue County has jurisdiction, and the Red Wing police would respond to calls and do some occasional patrolling,” Wells said. “That means in an emergency situation, best case scenario, help was going to be 15 to 20 minutes away.”
Over time, Prairie Island community leaders realized they would be better served if they had their own department. In 2003, they hired a police chief from Red Wing, who brought two other staffers on board. Wells was one of them.
With one computer, one phone line and a small office in a local community building, Wells and his colleagues worked to change the police presence in Prairie Island. “We didn’t have squad cars,” Wells said. “We had no guns or uniforms. Those were all things we needed to build up so we could actually look like a police department.”
The three worked around the clock to keep the station running. They shared a rotating schedule for responding to calls with one cellphone between them. Partnering with EMTs and paramedics at the Treasure Island Resort and Casino, the new department was able to immediately tend to emergencies and medical situations. These were services Prairie Island Indian Community had never received with such timeliness and attention.
It was a fulfilling experience for Wells, who came back to Prairie Island to serve friends and family where he grew up.
“I wanted to help my own community – my own relatives – to make sure things were done right and that they were being heard,” Wells said. “Others might not be aware of our culture and traditions, so I could help them understand the community they were working for.”
Over time, the department grew. They moved out of their small office, added the squad cars and uniforms, and hired three more members.
By 2007, the department had gotten off the ground, and Wells returned to continue serving the Washington County Sheriff’s Office. To Wells, it seemed that everything in his career was coming together. Through his career development and leadership, Wells considered a master’s degree – though he’ll be the first to admit he never expected to go in that direction.
“When I graduated in 1998, I thought I was done,” Wells said. But after hearing a number of testimonials from colleagues, he joined the Master’s in Public Safety and Law Enforcement Leadership program at St. Thomas. It felt like a natural, familiar fit for the Tommie grad, who returned in 2010 as a part of the St. Paul cohort.
“Knowing the expectations of St. Thomas, I knew it would be some work and that I’d be held accountable, but at the same time, I knew it would be very rewarding,” he said.
Wells started to reap those rewards on day one, delving into issues that directly affected the community where he worked.
“It was helpful to get involved in the community issues, knowing most of the dynamics that involve the community. Not just the people, the whole environment,” he said. “I was able to look at things with different lenses – from an administrative side, a government side and an employee side.”
In 2014, two years after graduating with his M.A., Wells returned to Prairie Island and was promoted to captain. More than 10 years after its inception, Wells’ department employs nine sworn officers, a probation officer and an emergency management coordinator.
The Public Safety and Law Enforcement Leadership program will celebrate its 35th anniversary with an event at St. Thomas on April 28.
Looking back, Wells refers to his master’s degree as a “stepping stone.” He’s maintained a strong network with his cohort members that has served him well throughout his career.
“I still speak with them, and we’ll bounce things off each other. I have the confidence to go out and talk to a task force, mention a person we know in common, and feel comfortable with that because of the program,” he said. “You learn a lot about yourself– about your work environment and your impact. And you do feel like you’re living the St. Thomas mission statement. You’re advancing the common good.”