July 29, 2010 at 8:21 a.m.

For chief, the road to North Branch was round-about, but the towns people quickly made him feel at home

For chief, the road to North Branch was round-about, but the towns people quickly made him feel at home
For chief, the road to North Branch was round-about, but the towns people quickly made him feel at home

It was the early part of the 1980s and Steve Forner was working for the Veterinary College of the University of Minnesota, on its beautifully manicured campus that abuts the state fairgrounds.

Little did Forner think that he would reach retirement age working as chief of police in North Branch. The most exposure he'd had to North Branch was driving the vet school's large animal ambulance to this area, picking up sick cattle for farmers.

Forner says he went to the university personnel office upon leaving military service-- hoping for janitorial work. The interviewer suggested that with his farm background the veterinary school would be a better fit, and that's how Forner first became a "public" employee.

His decades of working in the public sector end July 30, when Forner retires after chalking up 27 years with the police department, the last four as Chief.

Forner actually liked working at that veterinary facility; being around a veritable Noah's Ark of creatures was never boring, he recalls.

Fate steered him into seriously pursuing law enforcement when a Blaine policeman moonlighting with the university police force, invited Forner to ride along and see if police work interested him.

It did.

In June of 1983 after earning an associate degree, putting in time with the Stearns County sheriff's department and working city contract car for St. Stephens, MN -- Forner got hired to work in North Branch alongside Chief Doug Brown.

North Branch consisted of one square mile of land. North Branch was surrounded by a bucolic amoeba of a second city called Branch. When Branch dissolved (some might say merged, while others prefer consolidated) the territory that was North Branch City exploded to 36 square miles.

The casino industry was also being born around this time. Situated at the intersection of highway #95 and interstate #35 North Branch's patrol officer couldn't help but notice the increase in traffic and criminal activity grew. "People were either driving through to Hinckley or Mille Lacs or east to Turtle Lake. It was noticeable," Forner adds.

Working one night Officer Forner responded to a call of a fatal hold-up at a convenience store in Stacy.

The man convicted of executing clerk Rick Doyle admitted to having had a bad time gambling and decided while passing through, to rob the Stacy store. Images from the Rick Doyle murder scene stick with Forner; the victim shot in the head, cash register bills still in his fist.

Senseless crimes like this punctuate Forner's years on patrol, along with incidents when other law enforcement officers were shot or killed in the line of duty, and good citizens became victims. He is grateful he's been spared.

Forner said the reason he hung around was the North Branch townspeople. "This place can become your hometown in about one year," he relates. He still has people checking up on him when he doesn't come around for coffee or fails to stop by somebody's store for the latest news.

North Branch is a community that expects to see officers out and about, be available to talk to, the chief explains. When he took the chief appointment Forner said he told the city council he wasn't going to be a chief who is in his office all day, he continued to get out on the street and took calls when needed,

He points out many changes that have come along over the years.

The department initiated the K9 program about 10 years ago, the Peddle with Police event was started, (100 people attended the one held just recently), mobile computers went into squad cars, the Safety Cab program was launched to keep drunk drivers off the roads. North Branch Police partnered with Chisago County to offer a waste medicine disposal box... and, getting North Branch back into traditional black and white squads was one of Forner's goals.

While good things were successfully implemented, one major project-- the new digs for the North Branch Police Dept.-- did not get built.

This economy won't make it any easier on incoming Chief of Police, Dan Meyer, who was sworn in Monday night at the city council meeting.

Forner says in drafting this final departmental budget he is eliminating about two-thirds of all staff overtime, the drug dog won't be in schools and the hours for the schools liaison officer program are significantly reduced. Local Government Aid cuts and revenue losses for North Branch in general means few windows of opportunity for initiatives.

The city will not fill the position being vacated by Lieutenant Meyer when he succeeds to chief, which brings the force down to 11.

Forner has no definitive plans for retirement, but he's not checking out to a southern state; he likes snowmobiling around here too much. His wife Jackie recently retired and her advice has been that it'll take a while to let go of deadlines and schedules that defined daily life for so many years.

We have a feeling it will take the North Branch community a while to adjust to not having Steve Forner around too.


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