Hutchinson vows to 'reinvent' Hennepin Sheriff's Office

Hennepin County Sheriff-elect Dave Hutchinson (right)
Then-Hennepin County Sheriff candidate Dave Hutchinson, right, approaches a house in the Bryn Mawr neighborhood of Minneapolis while campaigning with volunteer Matthew Burress in November.
Evan Frost | MPR News 2018

Dave "Hutch" Hutchinson ran against longtime Sheriff Rich Stanek on a platform of change in the Hennepin County Sheriff's Office, including hot-button issues like immigration enforcement. When Hutchinson takes office Monday, he knows constituents will be watching to see how he delivers.

As part of his goal to "reinvent" how the Sheriff's Office operates, Hutchinson has met with trade unions to see if they can get people who've had run-ins with the law into steady work. It's an unorthodox approach for an urban sheriff's department.

"We want to be a much more open door, to be a part of the community," Hutchinson said. "Public safety is keeping people safe. It's just not about arresting them and throwing them into the street when they're done."

The Sheriff's Office is responsible for the county jail, courtroom security and responding to emergency calls in some areas, as well as other duties. Hutchinson has named the staff that will look after the daily workings of the department, including Maj. Tracey Martin, who previously ran the Adult Detention Court Services Bureau and will serve as Hutchinson's chief deputy.

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Hutchinson has ideas for changes in the Sheriff's Office, including bulking up 911 dispatch, diversifying the department and obtaining more de-escalation training for deputies.

But he also campaigned specifically on promises that he'll change how the office handles issues like immigration enforcement, transparency and mental health and addiction treatment. He's been working over the last month and a half to put together plans for how to approach these issues.

His predecessor had been criticized for turning people in jail over to Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). Hutchinson said he and his staff are already talking to attorneys to figure out what they can do differently.

"There's a thing that Hennepin County does that most counties don't do: same-day notification to ICE. We're going to suspend that as soon as we can as we figure out the legalities."

Hutchinson said that in addition to following the law, "we also have to show compassion."

On mental health and opioids, Hutchinson said he's talking to experts and exploring partnerships with organizations that have experience in those areas.

"People are scared of the police and people shouldn't be, especially people who are addicts or having mental health or immigration stuff," Hutchinson said. "People committing violent crimes — homicide, sexual assaults, kidnapping, sex trafficking — those are the people who should be scared of us."

The incoming sheriff grew up in Burnsville, where his dad was a cop for three decades. Hutchinson married his husband, Justin, three years ago. They live in Bloomington, with their 10-year-old rescue dog, Nike, who's chewed things in the house while Hutchinson has been distracted with the election and transition duties.

Though honored to be one of the first openly gay sheriffs working in a major urban area, Hutchinson said that doesn't change the job he's been elected to do.

"The thing that makes me part of the LGBT community is that I'm married to a man," Hutchinson said. "But other than that I protect, I serve, I do everything anybody else would do. But it's just who I am."

Hutchinson got his first police job in Bayport, and then spent 13 years with the Metro Transit Police Department.

Outgoing Chief John Harrington, recently named the next head of the Minnesota Department of Public Safety, said Hutchinson was one of the first in the department to volunteer for new community policing programs, walking a beat on Broadway Avenue in north Minneapolis. Harrington remembered seeing his officer at community events when Hutchinson was off the clock.

"He just was there because the community had invited him," Harrington said. "These communities, they saw in him that young leadership and said, 'OK, this is somebody we trust. We want him to be with us.'"

Hutchinson said he'll take community policing lessons with him into the sheriff's department. Harrington said Hutchinson was integral to convincing his Metro Transit colleagues that community policing was "good, legitimate police work.

"He ultimately started telling people in the academy and other places that this is the best way to do police work because you can make real, long-term, systemic change from a community base, rather than trying to impose policing from the outside."

Hutchinson's narrow win in November over Stanek, a former Republican state lawmaker, was a surprise to many. Stanek had won three terms handily before.

The race for the nonpartisan office was marked by partisan politics. Hutchinson was endorsed by DFL groups while Stanek, whose office didn't respond to a request for an interview, had the recommendation of the Republican Party.

But Hutchinson's election win is also part of a growing trend of voters paying more attention to elected offices in the criminal justice system, said Hamline University political science professor David Schultz.

"Candidates for office, even at the local level, are forced to take political positions or forced into the political roles in terms of responding to particular national agendas," Schultz said.

He added that some voters view elected criminal justice officials, such as sheriffs, as able to enact policies right away. But sheriffs must comply with the Constitution, and state and federal laws.

"Newly-elected officials will be under intense focus to see if they make any kind of significant policy changes even though there may not be as much freedom as we think for these individuals to be able to depart from, let's say, established police practices," Schultz said. "The activists, the people who are paying attention could be disappointed in not seeing as abrupt changes in policy as they would hope."

Irene Fernando, who was elected to the county board last year, aligns with Hutchinson on issues like immigration and staffing up the county's 911 system. But she said a sheriff and a county commissioner naturally will differ at times.

"I ran really heavily on this idea of partnership, of directness, and that when I disagree with someone that I'm able to express why in a respectful manner," Fernando said, "that's something that I know I'll have with Hutch."

Hutchinson said he knows he'll make mistakes and when he does, he plans to be transparent about what happened and to learn from it.

"We're not going to fix all these problems in the first day or two or month," Hutchinson said. "I want people to know that we are here for you and we're going to make sure things are better, but, again, give us some time."

Hutchinson's swearing-in is scheduled for 1 p.m. at the Hennepin County Government Center.