Three who would lead: takeaways from the Hennepin County sheriff candidate forum  


Three candidates for Hennepin County sheriff participated in Wednesday’s League of Women Voters forum held at St. Louis Park City Hall.

Sheriff David Hutchinson will be replaced by one of them. After pleading guilty in December to misdemeanor DUI driving, Hutchinson decided not to run for reelection. This stems from an incident in Hutchinson’s December crash with a county vehicle. For the remainder of his term, he is currently on medical leave.

The candidate pool of Joseph Banks, Jai Hanson, and Dawanna Witt will select the future leader of Hennepin County Sheriff’s Office. This office has a budget of over $120 million and employs more than 800 people.

Audience members wrote the questions for last night’s forum. Here are the responses of the candidates:

Whether or not to cooperate with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement

Hutchinson made changes last year to the way Hennepin County interacts with U.S Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Hutchinson removed the ICE office from the county jail and limited warrants for detaining immigrants. He also stopped notifying ICE about undocumented prisoners being released.

The candidates were asked if this would be a continuing approach.

Banks is a bail agent. He was previously chief of Morton Police Department, and acting chief of Lower Sioux Indian Community.

span style=”font weight: 400 When people are brought to jail, the first concern is their heritage, in my opinion, that is not equal justice,” stated Banks.

Witt is currently employed by Hennepin County Sheriff’s Office as a court security officer and adult detention coordinator. He also participated in the effort to end cooperation with ICE.

MinnPost photo by Bill Kelley
Joseph Banks: “When people are being brought to jail, the first concern is their heritage, in mine, that is not equal justice.”

Witt said that ICE needs a federal warrant to pick up someone. Witt is also a former Dakota County Sheriff’s Department Captain. Witt confirmed that she would continue Hutchinson’s policy of keeping ICE at arm’s reach.

Hanson stated that he would not give a “political answer” to any question in which he took a stand against collaboration with any agency. Hanson said that he would inform prisoners of their rights to not speak with ICE, but he wouldn’t give a political answer.

Hanson, a 20-year veteran police officer in Bloomington and Lakeville said he wouldn’t turn down the assistance of other agencies to help him combat crime.

span style=”font weight: 400 We are in the largest crime wave in the state’s history,” Hanson stated, adding that an “all-hands on deck” approach is necessary to counter this trend.

Gun violence

Witt stated that 36 guns were taken from the streets by a Hennepin County guns taskforce in just one week and nearly 100 people were jailed.

Hanson said that he took a loaded gun from a 15-year old two weeks ago. It has become the norm .”

Banks stated that he would collaborate with federal agencies like the FBI and Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives to target gun sales, particularly online. Banks claimed that young people have easy access to guns online.

MinnPost photo by Bill Kelley
Jai Hanson: Two weeks ago, I stole a loaded pistol from a 15-year old. It’s kind of the norm.

Hanson agreed that the county should work with federal partners in order to reduce gun violence.

Witt mentioned that the county already has a task force and said that an increase in staffing was the next step.

Managing police forces during joint efforts

Chiefs of police in Hennepin County expressed concern about rising crime rates like carjackings.

Hanson stated that this is often followed up by a request for a “metrowide response”.

Hanson stated that span style=”font weight: 400 That metrowide response is called “the sheriff’s office”. Hanson said that he has heard from chiefs of police who feel overwhelmed by the city’s mayor or city council. Hanson stated that he was aware of meetings between police chiefs without a representative from the sheriff’s department.

Witt pointed out that Hennepin County Board controls the budget of the sheriff’s office, so the sheriff must answer to the county. Witt, an employee of the county said that she is familiar with the fact that the sheriff’s office is present at any multi-jurisdictional chief meeting.

Her approach would be for police departments to be able to coordinate their efforts and to be sure that they share a common focus on problems plaguing both urban and suburban areas in Hennepin County.

Banks stated that although the county has a population exceeding 1,000,000, it only has 270 deputies.

Banks stated that span style=”font weight: 400 Mutual assistance is definitely key.”

Union discipline

Each candidate has criticized George Floyd’s death during the campaign season. Each candidate pointed out the failure to keep an officer like Derek Chauvin within the ranks during the forum.

Witt stated that span style=”font weight: 400 Other agencies get a bad reputation because people assume all unions are the exact same.” She said that not all unions are the same. Witt noted that Hennepin County Sheriff’s Department has three unions for licensed officers, one to detention and one for supervisors. The work they do to protect the legal rights of their members was admirable.

Witt suggested that a problem worth considering is the use of mediators to force law enforcement agencies to rehire people who are not suitable for the job. Witt also supports the installation of a tracking system to alert her immediately about any issues.

Banks stated that he would not hesitate in firing a deputy with a history of misconduct.

MinnPost photo by Bill Kelley
Dawanna Witt: “Other agency get a bad reputation because people think that all unions are alike.” “All unions are different.”

Banks stated that he would rather write a check to get rid of you than put you out there in the community and risk people’s lives,” adding that he would work around union processes to make sure no unfit officer is patrolling. We can arbitrate as many times as we like. I will place you behind a desk and I will keep you there, but you won’t go back to those streets and hurt anyone.

Hanson stated that no one dislikes a poor officer more than a good one, and that he would work to have union leaders who hold officers accountable.

He said that he wanted to see “union leadership” who supports good police officers.

Calls for mental health

Each candidate was different in their approach to calls about mental health crises. However, they all were rooted in compassion.

Witt stated that span style=”font weight: 400 ;”>” We need to meet people where we are, learn how to talk to them and what questions to ask.”

Hanson stated that deputies must be educated in order to have such conversations. He said that he would remove deputies from mental-health calls if they didn’t learn how to engage with someone in crisis.

Hanson said that he would slow down and change his style to “font-weight 400 ;”>””. “There’s no time limit for dealing with someone with a mental illness.”

Hansons stated that the priority would be to show deputies how taking control of an incident doesn’t always mean taking physical command.

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