Three candidates running in the Aug. 9 primary to be the next Hennepin County sheriff took part in a League of Women Voters forum on June 29 at St. Louis Park City Hall.
Those vying to replace Sheriff Dave Hutchinson are Joseph Banks, at various times chief of police for the Lower Sioux, the Upper Sioux, and the Morton, Minnesota police departments; Jai Hanson, a police officer who has been on two metro police departments; and Dawanna Witt, a major in the Hennepin County Sheriff’s Office.
The two top vote-getters in the primary will run against each other in the Nov. 8 general election.
Hutchinson, on medical leave for the remainder of his lone term, is not running for re-election. He pled guilty to misdemeanor drunken driving stemming from an incident in which Hutchinson crashed a county vehicle near Alexandria last December.
During the forum, the three stated their qualifications for the job and their position on various policing issues facing the county.
Witt brought with her the largest accumulation of formal credentials.
In her role with the sheriff’s office, Witt leads the single largest bureau, Adult Detention and Court Services. Witt holds a degree in chemical dependency and family therapy, a degree in police science, and dual master’s degrees in public safety administration and management. She is also an adjunct professor at Inver Hills Community College, teaching juvenile justice and American corrections.
Banks, the former police chief, has worked with the Twin Cities Recovery Project and the Black Butterfly project for young women. He noted that a moment can be “arrestable or teachable.”
Hanson holds a master’s in public safety administration. Because of out of control crime in north Minneapolis, he would immediately establish a satellite sheriff’s office there.
For the sake of better communication, Banks would attach a sheriff’s deputy to each city police department in the county.
Witt emphasized that the sheriff and the sheriff’s office must make themselves a part of the community and ensure they are “authentic” in their encounters with the community.
Witt noted that she had initiated a policy of non-cooperation with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).
Hanson agreed that the sheriff’s office “should not do ICE’s work for them” but — given the high incidence of crime — should partner with federal agencies that can help the county.
Witt noted that the sheriff’s office has already cooperated effectively with the Public Safety’s Violent Offender Task Force.
Hanson noted that the sheriff’s office is “metrowide” and that individual police departments have the limitation of answering to city councils.
Witt observed that the County Board controls the sheriff’s budget. She does believe municipal police departments and the sheriff’s office can provide mutual aid to each other and have a successful collaboration.
Banks said that the community must be educated about the effects of various drugs.
Hanson said homeless outreach is needed partly because of the drug abuse in the homeless encampments.
Witt said, “public safety is public health.” The sheriff’s office is partnering with Hennepin Healthcare.
Witt went on to say that degree requirements for police recruits are challenging because the recruit must cover the cost of an associate’s degree himself. She wished the Pathways to Policing program had passed in the Minnesota Legislature.
Banks did note that beyond the associate’s degree, police department hiring standards vary from department to department.
Hanson said the police cadet program needs to be brought back.
Regarding the unions, Witt did say that mediators are forcing the police to take back bad officers. She said that the existing Guardian Tracking program does provide some early warning.
If he could not get a bad officer out of the department, Banks said he would take that officer off the street and put him behind a desk.
Witt said it is important to bring empathy and accountability to dealing with officers and first responders.
When dealing with a citizen having a mental health crisis, Banks said if the situation is beyond an officer’s training, that officer should let his superior know. If a therapist is available to interact with the citizen, ensure it is safe for the therapist to be there.
Drawing on a long history of negotiation, Witt said that communication is the key to de-escalating a crisis.
Hanson said putting some officers through “remedial” training is acceptable. Also, embedded social workers can do necessary follow-up work.
Editor’s Note: The writer, EPLN contributor Frank Malley, is a DFL precinct chair.
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