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In Kenyon, the police chief knows demons, desperation and hope

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Police Chief Lee Sjolander takes a phone call at the police department.
Police Chief Lee Sjolander takes a phone call at the police department office on May 20, 2019, in Kenyon, Minn.
Christine T. Nguyen | MPR News

If you find a penny on the ground in Kenyon, there's probably a story behind it.

Police Chief Lee Sjolander has been leaving these pennies around his southern Minnesota town for years as a way to cope with the bad things he sees and experiences keeping the peace in this tiny town of 1,800 people.

"It's closure. It's to come back and say, 'OK. What did I do right, what should have happened, could have happened,'" he said. "You have to put it away and move on. And the pennies are a way of doing that."

Sjolander, 52, has written publicly about this very personal ritual. It's one way he's helped flip the stereotype of the hardened, stoic police chief. He is candid about the lessons he's learned from a traumatic childhood and his own struggles with mental health.

In doing so, he's reshaping the role police play in Kenyon.

Kenyon police Chief Lee Sjolander picks up Tinkerbell, a stray cat.
Kenyon Police Chief Lee Sjolander picks up Tinkerbell, one of the 80 stray animals the police department has helped take care of until the animals are adopted.
Christine T. Nguyen | MPR News

The cops here take in stray animals and take care of them with money raised from people living in the community until the animals are adopted. Bikes lined up in front of the station are donated and free to anyone who needs one. A well-stocked food shelf is just inside the station's front door, which is always unlocked.

For Sjolander, who has been chief for 12 years, a childhood marked by memories of a neglectful mother who abused drugs and alcohol, poverty and hunger play a huge role in how he approaches his job.

"I can relate to a lot of what I see because when I'm talking to somebody and they're like, "You don't know what it's like to not have a parent," he said. "I'm like, 'Dude, I was there.'"

As a child, Sjolander carried the burden of taking care of his chaotic household.

"My role was the caregiver," he said. "While a lot of kids are learning to ride bikes and playing with their buddies, I'm taking care of my younger siblings, making sure the meals are made, clothes are clean, homework is done."

Late one night when he was a teenager, after his mother and her boyfriend had a particularly violent and scary fight, Sjolander left.

"The noise and the chaos and the screaming and spitting and the broken stuff," he said. "I have to get the heck away from this."

Sjolander eventually went to the police and ultimately landed in foster care through high school with a couple that he considers his parents.

Sjolander said he spent years being angry at his mother. It was only as an adult that he realized that all those abusive topsy-turvy relationships, the drugs and the alcohol were a sign his mother was struggling with something deeper and darker.

"I think it's mental health," he said. "I think she had a lot of demons and issues."

Kenyon police Chief Lee Sjolander greets Dianne Vagness and her dog, Max.
Kenyon Police Chief Lee Sjolander, center, greets Dianne Vagness, left, and her dog, Max, during their walk on May 20, 2019, after checking on the home of Roxy Gates, right.
Christine T. Nguyen | MPR News

Today on the job, Sjolander encounters a lot of people with demons. It's a trend playing out across Minnesota and the nation as cops are increasingly called to help people in the middle of a mental health crisis. Often, without access to better resources, these calls end with people landing in jail or the already packed emergency room.

In Kenyon, Sjolander said he tries to avoid both scenarios by helping people before they're in crisis mode.

"If you can back up a little and say, 'OK, what's going on with you?' 'Well, I can't get a job.' You'll notice we have job postings out in the front of our office here. 'I'm trying to feed my family.' Well, we have the food shelf right here," he said. "We don't judge people."

Sjolander's unconventional approach to policing has caught the attention of officials in Washington, D.C. In 2016, he was invited to a White House forum where chiefs from departments around the nation met to brainstorm ideas on building public trust and confidence in the justice system.

A tattoo on Lee Sjolander's arm reads "Every Life Matters."
A tattoo on Lee Sjolander's arm reads "Every Life Matters." Sjolander believes that everyone goes through struggles and every life matters, which informs his approach of leading with empathy.
Christine T. Nguyen | MPR News

Policing a small town makes this approach easier than it would be in a big city. Sjolander knows most people living there, so he's already aware when a community member is struggling emotionally. He gives out his cellphone number. He offers advice and support. He drives people to treatment or connects them with social services.

Sometimes, these encounters can lead to long-lasting relationships.

Like with Jason, who stops by Sjolander's office with news that he's expecting his GED in the mail any day.

Jason is hoping Sjolander will keep the document in the office safe for him, because he doesn't trust himself to keep track of it.

Jason didn't want to give his last name because he suffers from bipolar disease and schizophrenia. For a long time, he was in a gang and struggled with drugs and alcohol, and did some time in jail.

On most days, Jason will call or text Sjolander several times just to shoot the breeze. But he's also called Sjolander in times of real crisis, like when he was stabbing his bed because he was sure mice and rats were going to eat him. Sjolander and his team were quickly able to connect Jason with his doctor and other supports.

"Lee's a lifesaver for me," Jason said. "He helps me with my reading stuff, helps me with problem solving stuff, gives me good advice. I trust Lee more than I trust anyone in this whole world."

But Sjolander's natural skills as a caretaker have worn on his own emotional stability.

"This is an awesome career field to hide in if you want to help people and not deal with your own stuff," he said.

Police Chief Lee Sjolander drives through Kenyon, Minn.
Police Chief Lee Sjolander drives through Kenyon on May 20, 2019.
Christine T. Nguyen | MPR News

All of Sjolander's stuff — the pain of his childhood and the stress of the job — caught up with him in 2015. He said he would start crying for no reason and felt a great deal of anxiety. He was ultimately diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder.

To cope, Sjolander saw a therapist and used medication for a time to manage his emotions.

But just as therapeutic for Sjolander was writing and speaking publicly about his own struggles with mental health, which he said is taboo in his profession.

"We don't talk about our suicide rates or divorce rates or all this stuff, and it's really, really high," Sjolander said. "For me to come out and say, 'I want to talk about this and tell you I'm having some struggles and if you are, there are things you can do,' I think it helps.'"

Sjolander said he got calls and emails from cops all over the country saying they appreciated his candor — and that they were struggling with the same problems. Now, Sjolander is asked to speak on the topic and his writing on the subject has helped earn him a social media following of more than 30,000 people.

Sjolander — who is married with three children — said part of healing mentally is leaning into the discomfort of his emotions. He says it's a hard thing to do because his job is a constant reminder of all the bad things he's seen.

So, that's when he started leaving pennies around town.

A penny sits on the ground at a trailer where a girl choked to death.
A penny sits on the ground at a trailer where the daughter of Lee Sjolander's friends choked to death.
Christine T. Nguyen | MPR News

One is in front of a brown trailer where Sjolander lived when he first started working for the Kenyon Police Department after his first marriage ended.

"This house has a lot of good memories for me. It was a fresh start," he said.

After Sjolander moved out, his friends bought the trailer where they raised their daughter, Jasmine. One day, Jasmine, who was 7 years old, came out of the trailer and collapsed in front of her father who was working in the yard. She was choking and Sjolander and his team were called to the scene.

They tried to do CPR but it was too late.

"She choked to death basically in my arms right about here," Sjolander said.

He points to a spot on the ground where a rusty penny is barely visible between the cracks in the pavement.

In a blog post, Sjolander wrote about this practice and encouraged people who see the pennies to pick them up.

"It won't bring you good luck," he wrote. "But it just might remind you that everyone has struggles and everyone matters."