SPICER, Minn. — Artwork for a new speciality Minnesota license plate honoring law enforcement officers who died in the line of duty was created by Spicer artist Michele Steffen.
The new plate will be available soon through state Driver and Vehicle Services offices. Money raised through the additional license plate fees will help support families of Minnesota's fallen officers.
Steffen's delicate watercolor painting that will be stamped onto a metal license plate features shadowy outlines of different law enforcement divisions, while an honor guard member walks the "thin blue line."
"They really wanted to have a story told," Steffen said, of the direction she received from the Law Enforcement Memorial Association.
To prepare to tell that story through her artwork, Steffen read numerous stories about law enforcement officers from around the country who were killed in the line of duty.
That part of the research was "heart-wrenching," Steffen said, recalling stories of officers killed in an ambush or killed while "running toward trouble."
So far this year, 51 law enforcement officers have died in the line of duty across the U.S.
Last year there were 135, according to Officer Down Memorial Page Inc., a nonprofit organization that documents and honors fallen officers.
In Minnesota the annual statewide average is 1.5 officers killed annually in the line of duty, said Willmar Police Chief Jim Felt, who is on the board of directors for the Law Enforcement Memorial Association.
After the Legislature authorized the law enforcement memorial license plate in 2017, Felt said the state created a basic design for the plate.
But Felt said the image didn't quite carry the message the association was hoping to convey and the board agreed to find an alternate design.
With a short time-frame to provide a completed design to the state, Felt recommended Steffen — who is his sister-in-law — for the project.
"She has done other artwork I'm familiar with," Felt said. "I asked if she'd be interested and she said she would."
Steffen not only agreed to do the project, she also donated her time and talent.
"It felt like such an honor to give something to people who give their lives," Steffen said.
Working in her studio, which had originally been used for animals on her rural Spicer hobby farm, Steffen began sketching out options.
The self-taught artist had to mesh her artistic interpretation of the emotional message of honoring fallen law enforcement officers with strict state guidelines.
For example, the legislation stipulated that a "black line with a blue line of equal proportion above and below the black line" must be included in the design to represent the "thin blue line."
And then there were the more mundane restrictions like making room for bolt holes and annual license plate stickers.
The Law Enforcement Memorial Association board selected Steffen's watercolor painting that has light blue outlines of officers from different divisions, like state patrol, county sheriff, city police, SWAT and Department of Natural Resources.
Most of the different law enforcement units are noted with different hat styles.
Steffen said she chose nondescript body shapes that could represent either a female or male officer.
Some tweaks were made to the original painting — an image of a horse was removed and the words "Blessed Are The Peacemakers" were added.
Most of those adjustments were made on the computer by a graphic artist, Heather Bonn-Tomas, who is a sister of a Washington County sheriff's deputy who serves on the Law Enforcement Memorial Association board. Bonn-Tomas also donated her time, Felt said.
In describing the artwork, Felt said the figure on the left is a law enforcement honor guard member walking the "thin blue line" at the Peace Officers Memorial at the State Capitol grounds in St. Paul. The "shadow images" of the officers indicates "they may not be physically present, but their memory and service to county, state and community are present and remembered."
The badges on the uniforms "shine to represent service and hope," he said.
"The amount of forethought and effort that went into it just really blew me away," Felt said.
After getting approval this spring from all the law enforcement departments, the design was sent to a Minnesota Correctional Facility where several tests are being made to make sure additions like watermarks and holograms don't change the image, Felt said.
After that, they'll be made available to the public.
"We can't wait to see them driving around the state," Felt said.
Besides the extra $10 to the state, the cost of the new plates will include a one-time $25 donation to the Law Enforcement Memorial Association and a $5 annual contribution to the association, to help surviving family members of officers killed in the line of duty.