The Jacob Wetterling abduction

Stearns County sheriff candidates vow to make change, rebuild trust

Stearns County Sheriff candidate Steve Soyka.
Stearns County sheriff candidate Steve Soyka writes a note on his campaign literature while out canvassing a St. Cloud neighborhood Friday.
Paul Middlestaedt for MPR News

Long gone are the days when a sheriff's job revolved around running the county jail.

Today, Minnesota's 87 elected county sheriffs have much more significant problems to worry about: inmates with mental health issues, sex trafficking, drugs — even domestic terrorism.

"The role of law enforcement has changed. We're not just ticket writers anymore," said Steve Soyka, a sergeant in the Stearns County Sheriff's Office who is running for the department's top job. "Now we have to be psychologists and social workers and just a problem-solver, basically."

Soyka's opponent, Waite Park police Chief Dave Bentrud, said in the early days of his law enforcement career, he was mostly responding to calls about bar fights and loud music.

"Today, the issues are more complex: Sex trafficking issues, mental health issues," Bentrud said. "There's a lot of people in jail [for whom the] biggest issue is mental health. And if we can address that on the front end, maybe we can keep them from having to end up in jail."

Stearns County Sheriff candidate Dave Bentrud looks over a map
Stearns County sheriff candidate Dave Bentrud looks over a map with his wife Beth Saturday while out campaigning in a St. Cloud neighborhood.
Paul Middlestaedt for MPR News

Soyka and Bentrud both say their experience has prepared them to take on the top law enforcement job in a county that covers almost 1,400 square miles and stretches from St. Cloud to Sauk Centre. The department has more than 200 employees and an annual budget of almost $20 million.

Stearns County voters will decide Nov. 6 which candidate they think is best suited to lead the sheriff's office for the next four years.

Soyka has worked in the department for more than 20 years, and has led the Central Minnesota Violent Offender Task Force and the county's SWAT team.

Stearns County Sgt. Steve Soyka goes door to door.
Stearns County Sgt. Steve Soyka knocks on doors in St. Cloud while campaigning for Stearns County sheriff.
Paul Middlestaedt for MPR News

Bentrud worked as a police officer and sergeant in St. Cloud before taking over the Waite Park Police Department 10 years ago. He helped create a countywide task force to investigate sex trafficking.

Both candidates say they want to bring change — and modernization — to the sheriff's office.

Bentrud is focusing on data, and said Stearns County needs better technology to help identify and track patterns of crime in order to focus deputies' work more precisely.

"Stearns County, for example, is way too big to just kind of be randomly driving around," he said. "We've got to be able to pull data out, analyze it, find out where things are happening, communicate to those parts of the county that are being affected with different crime issues whatever they might be."

Waite Park Police Chief Dave Bentrud canvases a St. Cloud neighborhood.
Waite Park police Chief Dave Bentrud canvases a St. Cloud neighborhood.
Paul Middlestaedt for MPR News

Soyka is focused on improving communication throughout the county. Although he's spent much of his career in the sheriff's department, he said he isn't in favor of maintaining the status quo.

"I have every intention of changing, rebranding, remarketing our sheriff's office from where we've been," he said. "I think it's time for a little bit [of a] different philosophy."

While they have different plans for how they'd do it, both candidates are campaigning on platforms of improving a department that has lately been under significant scrutiny.

Don Gudmundson was appointed to serve as interim sheriff in May 2017 after former Sheriff John Sanner retired. Gudmundson isn't running to keep the job, and hasn't endorsed either candidate in the race. But he has been publicly critical of the department's past performance.

At a press conference last month, Gudmundson delivered a blistering analysis of the investigation into the 1989 abduction of 11-year-old Jacob Wetterling.

Gudmundson criticized the FBI and the sheriff's department for missing key clues that pointed to Danny Heinrich — who later confessed to kidnapping and killing Wetterling — as the likely suspect.

It was an uncomfortable public reckoning. But both Soyka and Bentrud say they think taking a critical look at past mistakes is a good thing.

"I think that there were some missed opportunities there," Bentrud said. "I don't think anything that could have been done to save Jacob's life. But when it came to the investigation, there were so many compelling indicators that Heinrich was the suspect."

There's nothing wrong with law enforcement admitting when it's made errors, Soyka said.

"The reality is that we as law enforcement are human beings, that we can make mistakes too," he said. "It's just a matter of you know letting the public know at some point or another."

Steve Soyka (right) gets some help from his father Richard Soyka.
Steve Soyka (right) gets some help from his father Richard Soyka while campaigning. Richard Soyka, a former Benton County commissioner won't be able to vote for his son due to his residency in Benton County.
Paul Middlestaedt for MPR News

One of the first challenges the new sheriff will face: Rebuilding Stearns County's trust with the department.

Election Day is Nov. 6.

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