Lee Vague was a recent college graduate in 1989, working as a community-service officer for the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport police, when he applied to work at two very different police departments: Woodbury and Minneapolis.
Minneapolis offered him a job first, and Vague, decked out in his new, light-blue officer’s shirt, was on his way out the door for his first day of “rookie school” when the phone rang. On the line was Greg Orth, Woodbury police chief.
“I had to make a pretty big life decision right on the spot as to where I was going to go,” Vague said. “I did what any mature 21-year-old does: I called my dad. … I obviously made the decision to come here (to Woodbury), which was truly the right decision for me.”
Working in the inner city would have been more exciting in the beginning, he said, “but having a little bit of foresight and seeing the growth and the opportunities here, this was the right call. This place, the culture here, the community, everything about it is just a good match for me.”
Vague, 54, retires Aug. 19 as Woodbury’s top cop — director of public safety, overseeing police, fire and emergency medical services.
In his 33 years in Woodbury, Vague has seen the city grow from a sleepy suburb, population 20,000, with an 18-person police department – he’s badge No. 21 – to a booming suburb of 75,000 with an officer force of more than 70.
Vague was a sergeant in the police department in 2007 when city officials took the unusual step of promoting him to director of public safety over more-senior and higher-ranked personnel, City Administrator Clint Gridley said.
“That faith in Lee’s potential has been well-rewarded,” Gridley said. “His positive attitude impacted others around him, encouraging his team to stay upbeat and to keep pressing on until they succeeded.”
Vague is an “articulate and charismatic leader who authentically cares about the people around him,” Gridley said. “He has created an environment where everyone feels valued, supported and appreciated.”
Woodbury Police Cmdr. Jason Posel, who will succeed Vague as public-safety director, echoed those sentiments. He and Sgt. Omar Maklad, who will be promoted to police chief and assistant public safety director, will be sworn in Aug. 10.
“Lee’s biggest strength is his empathy,” Posel said. “Even if he hasn’t experienced other people’s walks of life, he has that compassion and is able to work with people, both as a patrol cop and supervisor and, ultimately, as director of public safety — to meet with them where they are and work on problems that impact the community and individual issues that they might have.”
Vague grew up in Cottage Grove and graduated from Park High School in 1985. He earned an associate’s degree from the University of Minnesota and a bachelor’s in law enforcement from Metropolitan State University in 2006.
He taught leadership, coaching and mentoring for the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension for a decade. He is an accomplished musician and plays the electric, acoustic and bass guitars around the metro area and at his church, St. Joan of Arc Catholic Community in Minneapolis, each Sunday.
He and his wife, Nancy, were high school sweethearts. The Vagues lived in Woodbury with their two children, Malory and Grant, for most of his career. The couple moved to Minneapolis two years ago.
Vague met with the Pioneer Press last week to discuss his career, retirement plans, Evel Knievel and that time he was bested by a bat. The transcript is edited for clarity and conciseness.
Q: Did you always want to be a cop?
A: I didn’t grow up in a law-enforcement or law-and-order household. Honestly, my parents were both pretty progressive. My mom was a kindergarten teacher. My dad worked for the (Minnesota) Department of Transportation. They were both musicians. I grew up in a house where we played music. My older sister, Lisa, got a job as a police officer for the city of Crystal. It came from genuinely wanting to help people. I know that sounds clichéd, but it’s not. Actually, I think that’s what draws most people into this job. I was a freshman at the University of Minnesota, and I had no idea what I was going to do. I went on a ride-along with her and was really drawn to the idea that you can go to work and you can have an impact on somebody right there, right then. I changed my major to sociology of criminal deviance.
Q: Is your sister still a cop?
A: She retired in 2014. She was a patrol cop her entire career. She never took the sergeant’s exam. She wanted to stay out of the office. She was just the quintessential community police officer. She knew everybody in town; everybody knew her. That was really appealing to me as a young person looking into the job.
Q: What was Woodbury like when you started?
A: The population was just coming up to 20,000. In fact, the sign still said 10,000. They hadn’t switched them over yet. They were just putting a four-way stop sign in at Radio Drive and Valley Creek (Road) the day I interviewed here. I remember that because I was late for my interview, and I had to roll through the stop sign to get there on time. I thought: “I’m either going to get a ticket, or maybe I’ll get a job. We’ll see how this goes.”
Q: How was your first day on the job?
A: It was January. It was brutally cold, and my field training officer was sick, so I was in car with another (field training officer), and my very first call we took was a Hudson car or a State Patrol car coming out of Wisconsin that said they were following a vehicle into our city, and the driver had a murder warrant out of California.
A: That’s what I said. I’ve only been on the job for 15 minutes, I said “No” to Minneapolis, and here I am in Woodbury chasing a guy wanted for murder. We assisted on this felony stop, and it went fine. The person was arrested, but it was so cold that the gloves that they bought me froze. I couldn’t put my finger in the trigger — like, literally, my finger froze to the side of my gun and then was all frostbitten. About 30 seconds into this traffic stop, a state trooper had kind of come up behind me; he had a shotgun in his hand and said something to the effect of “I’m on your right, partner,” and I thought, “Oh, OK, this is it.” It was just a moment where you’re out there, you’re doing the job. This person is there, they’re helping, and we’re all working together. It went really well. But after I got back in the car, I’m thinking, “He had no idea I’d been on the job for about an hour, and my finger was frozen stiff.” That was my first night, my first call. It was a hot start.
Q: What hours did you work?
A: We would work, at that time, 5 at night to 3 in the morning. I liked that shift. It was really fun. Most of the interesting calls happened between those hours. When things would get quiet, after 3, you’d get to go home, sleep in. As a young person, I thought that was a great shift. You worked weekends, of course, but that’s when most things were going on.
Q: Woodbury is one of Minnesota’s fastest-growing cities. How has the department dealt with that growth?
A: If you’re OK with change, it’s a really fun place to work. There are a lot of challenges that come with that, too, but planning for all the retail expansion, that was an exciting thing, and all the new houses, new people coming in. There was a really fun energy. Anytime there are new things, there’s going to be more work for us on the police side. I never saw that as a negative. It was just, well, that’s our business. That’s what we do.
Q: The city’s demographics have changed. How has that changed policing here?
A: It’s a much more diverse community now. I probably took for granted early in my career that law enforcement’s presence in somebody’s life, or on their block, or driving down their street, was just a positive thing for everybody. I was pretty naïve in that regard. It wasn’t until, honestly, these last few years that I realized that it’s clearly a lot more complex than that. And yet, to be able to be a part of this, to be able to really be on the front lines around all of the things we’ve been experiencing over these past three years has been really, really nice because it’s where the work is, right? It’s so important that everybody feels safe. I come to work, and I want to help people. That feeling was palpably different in this community (after the murder of George Floyd). I don’t think it was just the proximity. It was a worldwide phenomenon – just the interconnectedness in how people feel. That’s one of the challenges we face going forward.
Q: How has the job changed?
A: One area that has changed and has increased is the number of calls that we get called into where people are having some form of a crisis. That has grown a lot.
Q: How are you addressing that?
A: We have a licensed social worker who is embedded right here. They are a county social worker, and they work with one of our officers who is dedicated to this issue. What they do every day is primarily preventive. They work with people; they work with families. They come up with safety plans. They visit people when they are not in crisis. They build relationships with people and families who, if they are starting to struggle, they call us. By the time somebody calls 911, and somebody is in crisis, and somebody is armed, there’s just so many things that are stacked against us. Our goal is to have an impact on a number of those and have less of those types of calls and help people before they get to that point. We started this in 2021, and there is no question it helps keep our community safer. It helps keep our officers safer, too.
Q: It really comes down to knowing the community.
A: If we see a problem, we can actually go to work on fixing it. That’s pretty cool. I tell young officers: “Get out of your car and interact with people. Listen to people. Get to know what’s going on in your community. Find a way to help people. That’s the job.” That’s the part that most appealed to me in choosing to come here. That was the culture, and you had a little more time to do that here. If you have 40 calls stacked up, you can’t do that. Here, we can. Of course we’re much busier now – it’s a much bigger city now, but we still have opportunities to do that. That’s still at the heart of what we do.
Q: What are your post-retirement plans?
A: Professionally, I have some opportunities to do some teaching and consulting, and that’s exciting. I’m also going to take some time to not do that. We’re going to do some traveling. There are a lot of places that we would love to still see. I play guitar and sing. I have a recording studio at home. My son, Grant, is a musician, and we play together. I’ll enjoy maybe doing some producing with him and playing. Music has remained a very nice way for me to do something completely different than this and maintain, I think, a nice balance and perspective.
Q: It looks like you’ve pretty much moved everything out of your office. The only thing left is your Evel Knievel bobblehead.
A: If that was my uniform, I’d still be wearing a uniform every day because that’s the greatest thing I’ve ever seen in my life. My son bought me an Evel Knievel outfit – he spent way too much money on it, but he knew I would love it. I still have it – I wish I could still fit into it, but I’m about to turn 55, and I don’t know if anyone wants to see me in a white Evel Knievel leather jumpsuit anymore. But I do have it, and it will always remain in my closet. It’s one of my most cherished possessions.
Q: I understand you once had a run-in with a bat.
A: One theme that has made me laugh over my career is the idea that people will call the police for almost any reason and, by the luck of the draw, I show up to solve their problem. Sometimes, you just get the short straw. Early in my career, I was called to a furniture store on Hudson Road for a bat that was sleeping under a desk. My futile attempt to catch it resulted in it flying around my head and me running away screaming like a little kid on a roller coaster. The two employees who called it in just stood there looking at each other while, I’m sure, silently asking, “Seriously? This is who they sent to help us?” I continue to steer clear of all bats, snakes and spiders.
The Woodbury City Council will honor outgoing Woodbury Public Safety Director Lee Vague at their council meeting on Aug. 10 at Woodbury City Hall. At the meeting, which starts at 7 p.m., the council also will issue a proclamation declaring Aug. 19 as “Lee Vague Day” in Woodbury; swear in incoming Public Safety Director Jason Posel and swear in incoming Police Chief Omar Maklud.