For the first time in Hennepin County’s 170 years of history, a Black sheriff will be the top law enforcement official at the county.
Either Dawanna Witt or Joseph Banks will lead the Hennepin County Sheriff’s Office at a time of rising concerns about violent crime in the region and increased public scrutiny of law enforcement. They’ll also be tasked with stabilizing a department shaken by the actions of the current sheriff.
Just over 57 percent of primary election voters last week cast their ballots for Witt. She’s a major in the Hennepin County Sheriff’s Office, and had previously worked for the Dakota County Sheriff’s Office.
Witt said the public shouldn’t have to choose between law enforcement agencies pursuing criminals and ensuring that police act justly. She said people should have both.
“These last three years, particularly, have been very difficult, and yet I’m still here and I still believe we can do better,” Witt said. “I believe in leading from the front, and that’s why I still have hope that we will be alright — it’s going to take a lot of work, but that’s not something I’m afraid of.”
Witt is endorsed by U.S. Rep. Dean Phillips, some state and Minneapolis lawmakers and former Hennepin County Sheriff Patrick McGowan, among others.
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In the general election, Witt will be facing Banks, the former acting police chief of the Lower Sioux Indian Community and police chief of the police department in Morton, Minn. He came in second in last Tuesday’s primary election with 22 percent of the vote.
Banks said he’d bring leadership and vision to the sheriff’s office, which he said hasn’t been the case for a while.
“Uniquely enough, we have found ways to get things done but not to make things better,” Banks said. “I’m going to bring the right leadership that we need to get things done. And I have a vision that I know is going to help Hennepin County lower violent crime, and help us to build trust between the community and law enforcement.”
Witt said that some of the public’s perception about the sheriff’s office is due to lack of transparency in the agency. She said the sheriff’s office needs to do a better job of telling people what they do.
”I keep hearing people talking about rebuilding trust, well, we also have to acknowledge that there are some communities that never had that trust,” Witt said. “It’s not enough just to drive through the streets and know your geography, but who are the people you’re actually encountering?”
Banks said he’s in the process of working up his plan for accountability, which he said would both include a system of tracking officers behavior and a review board staffed by citizens and officers.
”I want our officers to try and utilize more discretionary authority,” Banks said. “Just making sure the citizens understand that we’re not out here just looking to arrest people even though we have the ability in some situations to arrest people, but looking for ways to make those more teachable situations and less arrestable situations.”
During the pandemic, some forms of violent crime, including homicides, rose across the nation, including in the Twin Cities. Witt said it’s clear that law enforcement needs to change its approach.
“When people are fearful in their communities or going to school or going to work, nobody thrives, nobody gets better, nobody does better,” Witt said. “Public safety has to be a priority.”
Banks said a department serving the almost 1.3 million residents of Hennepin County needs to bulk up the number of deputies on patrol, and to be more proactive in how they approach crime.
The new sheriff will be on the hook for repairing damage done to the department and its reputation after a tumultuous term under Sheriff Dave Hutchinson.
Supporters had high hopes for Hutchinson, who was the first openly gay sheriff in the Midwest. But his tenure was dogged by controversy and claims of a hostile work environment.
Last December, Hutchinson crashed his county-issued vehicle after leaving a law enforcement conference. At times, the vehicle reached speeds of up to 126 miles per hour and a breathalyzer test after the crash showed he was above the legal limit for alcohol. He later pleaded guilty to a DWI.
FOX 9-TV reported that Hutchinson had made questionable purchases with his county credit card including for travel and food. Hutchinson, who is being investigated by the county for two human resources complaints, has been on paid leave from his job since May.
Witt said she believes that law enforcement agencies should reflect their communities, and she relishes the chance to inspire young girls to aspire to leadership. But she said the historic nature of this election, shouldn’t distract from the experience she would bring to the office.
Whoever takes over the department will oversee about 800 staff members, including more than 300 licensed peace officers, and a more than $128 million dollar budget. Election Day is Nov. 8.