Hennepin County sheriff candidates lay out priorities ahead of election


Hennepin County Sheriff race is nearing the finish line. Major Dawanna Witt (left) and Joseph Banks (right) are battling it out after being ranked in the top two of a field that included three candidates at August’s primary.

Witt and Banks are running to succeed Dave Hutchinson (Hennepin County Sheriff). Hutchinson is currently on medical leave after pleading guilty to misdemeanor drunken driver following a crash that he caused late last year.

Hennepin County Sheriff’s Office, which employs more than 300 officers and manages the state’s biggest jail, will have its first Black Sheriff.

The Candidates

Witt was born in Minneapolis and said that she was constantly surrounded by alcoholism, drug addiction and violence.

She worked as a non-profit employee, helping families with chemical dependency and dealing with child protection cases. After touring the Hennepin County jail, she filled out an application for a position as a detention deputy. This led her to return to school to become licensed peace officer.

Witt was later the first woman to be promoted to sergeant and captain in the Dakota County Sheriff’s Department. She worked there for 15 years. She returned to school during that time and received a double-major master’s degree in public security administration and management.

She was contacted by Hutchinson in 2019 to be re-elected to Hennepin County. There, she is now the Adult Detention and Court Services Director. This office oversees the downtown Minneapolis county jail and provides law enforcement for over a dozen other courthouses that have nearly 100 courts.

Witt stated that her law enforcement and childhood experience combined with the current state of the county after George Floyd’s murder and subsequent unrest, as well as the pandemic, compelled her to run. Witt stated that the job requires someone who is passionate about helping people. Witt has lived in this role since childhood.

She said that she knew we needed someone who understood how to run a sheriff’s office and was doing it for the right reasons. “I am someone who cares deeply about the community. I care about this job, and I care about the men, women, and children who do this job. So why not me ?”

Banks was born in Illinois and began his career in various positions at a suburban Illinois police department. Before he returned home, he joined the U.S. Marine Reserves and then he was promoted to a position as a part time officer.

He moved to Minnesota in 1993 to pursue a criminal justice degree. Later, he became the chief of the Upper Sioux and Morton Police Departments in southern Minnesota. Although he is no longer a police officer, he continues to be involved in police-related work. He has been a bail bondman, and he founded the Twin Cities Recovery Project, which helps people with drug addiction.

Banks stated that he was inspired by his experiences with police officers and his family’s success as officers. Although he left the profession after a while, Banks said that he was inspired by the killings of Black men by police officers, such as Jamar Clark and Floyd, to return to policing.

He said, “I felt that we needed some accountability and transparency and I feel like I could bring that to the country.”

Witt won the August primary with 57% of the vote. This was almost 60,000 more votes than the next candidate. Banks came in second place with just over 22 percent of the vote. This was just two percentage points behind Jai Hanson and will allow Witt to continue his campaign for the general election.

These are the issues

Both candidates stated that they would continue Hutchinson’s efforts to reduce cooperation between the sheriff’s office and U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. This included a stop to notifying ICE when inmates with undocumented status were released and curbing warrants to detain immigrants. Both candidates listed gun violence and crime as their top priorities. These issues have been a hot topic in elections across the country.

Witt stated that she will continue to work with the Sheriff’s Office’s Major Crimes Unit, as well as the violent offenders task force. They are looking for gun violence victims and responding to mutual aid requests from local police departments. Witt also plans to recruit more deputies to assist in proactive policing, patrolling and other activities.

Banks agreed with Witt’s plan to recruit more deputies. Both candidates stressed the importance of finding deputies from diverse communities throughout the county to strengthen their ranks.

Banks stated that he would like to recruit people from the community to help him. He also said that they want to meet the community with people they know.

They also shared similar strategies for dealing with mental health crises. Banks stated that he would train deputies in de-escalation in such situations and also try co-responder models when officers are accompanied by mental health professionals or social workers.

Witt pointed out the sheriff’s two existing partnerships. One with Hennepin Healthcare, where mental health professionals provide services for individuals in jail; and another with the county’s behavioral health division which embeds mental healthcare professionals at dispatch.

Their priorities are what makes the differences between their visions of the job. Witt stated that jail reform is a major focus of hers. This would include doing more to prevent recidivism as well as providing services for people who leave jail and return to their communities.

She said that although she understood that not everyone can do it, she believes we should have the resources to make sure people don’t get into the same traps that got them in jail. While I do understand that it is impossible to be everywhere at once, that doesn’t stop us from trying .”

Banks, however, stressed rebuilding trust in law enforcement through increased visibility in the community and reevaluating how deputies interact in the community.

He said, “I would make sure we have fair and impartial policing in the community.” “I would ensure fair and impartial police work in the community .”

Rick Petry, a Mitchell Hamline School of Law professor, stated that both candidates stress a community-focused role in the sheriff’s office. Petry stated that he has lived in Minnesota for over 20 years and observed a lack in trust between the police and the community. He also said that many of the major changes proposed after Floyd’s death have not been implemented.

Having two candidates who are community-focused in this race presents the county’s residents with the opportunity to fix that problem and make policing more effective, he stated.

He said that if the sheriff’s office can build more relationships, it helps to build trust and provides opportunities for development and nurturing. “If the sheriff’s office can build more relationships, it helps to build trust and provides opportunities for development and nurturing .”

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