Lawsuit: Threats, alleged retribution marked Hutchinson’s time as Hennepin County sheriff

A man sits in a car.
Former Hennepin County Sheriff Dave Hutchinson sits in his squad car in Robinsdale, Minn., on Friday, Jan. 8, 2020. Current and former members of the Hennepin County Sheriff’s Office — including current Sheriff Dawanna Witt — blasted former Sheriff Dave Hutchinson in a lawsuit Wednesday.
Evan Frost | MPR News 2020

Updated: 1:49 p.m.

Current and former members of the Hennepin County Sheriff’s Office — including current Sheriff Dawanna Witt — blasted former sheriff Dave Hutchinson in a lawsuit Wednesday alleging bigotry, erratic behavior and threats of retribution by him that led some to fear for their careers and their lives.

The lawsuit, filed against the county, alleges county officials were aware of Hutchinson’s behavior and didn’t do enough to stop it.

The lawsuit says Hutchinson’s staff “became more fearful of Hutchinson’s behavior,” which allegedly included “threats to their jobs and threats to their physical safety” and that those suing “had serious concerns about Hutchinson’s potential for violence and worried he would ‘snap.’”

The allegations include an incident in 2021 where “Hutchinson unholstered his gun, a revolver, and aimed it at employees while ‘joking’ about ‘shooting’ people. In doing so, Hutchinson flipped open the gun’s chamber and bullets fell to the ground.”

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The lawsuit also describes an April 2022 confrontational meeting where Hutchinson allegedly “declared he would ‘fire’ the whole Command Staff and have them investigated for insubordination” as they questioned him about the approval of certain time cards that possibly violated the law.

Witt, a subordinate at the time, said she was a specific target of Hutchinson’s ire and that he threatened her reputation and job with the county, according to the lawsuit.

Three people stand during a press conference.
Chief of Staff for Hennepin County Sheriff’s Office Tim Stout (left) and attorney Steven Andrew Smith stand next to Hennepin County Sheriff Dawanna Witt as she speaks during a press conference at the Hennepin County Government Center on Wednesday in Minneapolis.
Kerem Yücel | MPR News

Witt and others plaintiffs spoke to some of the lawsuits allegations as they met with reporters Wednesday morning.

“I am acutely aware of the warning signs of workplace violence and Hutchinson’s behavior contained all hallmark signs of someone who might commit horrific acts of violence,” said Timothy Stout, currently chief of staff in the sheriff’s office. Despite bringing the issue to the county, Stout said: “The county basically told us to fend for yourselves against an armed sheriff.”

Stout said he ultimately had to seek help from another sheriff’s office to protect him and his family at his home. “I served in appointed and civilian service positions for decades and I have never, ever experienced this type of unacceptable, illegal, and disturbing behavior until working for sheriff Hutchinson at Hennepin County.”

Steven Andrew Smith, the employees’ attorney said the county could have done more, including allowing employees who felt unsafe to work from home or received additional security. The county could have chosen to put Hutchinson on leave or revoked his access to firearms, he added.

Carolyn Marinan, chief public affairs officer for Hennepin County, responded in a statement saying the county will “vigorously defend against these claims.”

County administration, she added, “took prompt action to investigate these claims once alerted, and worked diligently to address Sheriff Hutchinson’s conduct during a very challenging time with support from the County Board.”

A woman speaks at a press conference
Hennepin County Sheriff Dawanna Witt speaks during the press conference at the Hennepin County Government Center.
Kerem Yücel | MPR News

Witt told reporters that the legal action will not deter her own commitments at Hennepin County and that moving forward she would not speak publicly about the lawsuit.

“None of us take this action lightly,” she said, “but I joined this suit to make sure that no one has to endure the type of behavior ever again that we endured at Hennepin County.”

Hutchinson’s career unraveled after he was found to be driving drunk at extremely high speeds in a county-owned vehicle in December 2021, topping 126 mph before rolling it over on Interstate 94 near Alexandria, according to a Minnesota State Patrol report.

Three people stand and speak to the press.
Attorney Steven Andrew Smith (right) speaks during the press conference at the Hennepin County Government Center on Wednesday.
Kerem Yücel | MPR News

He was later sentenced two years probation for DWI. The Minnesota Peace Officer Standards and Training Board suspended his peace officer license for 30 days in response. He chose not to run for reelection in 2022, paving the way for Witt’s election.

MPR News sought a response from Hutchinson Wednesday morning through the last lawyer listed for him and could not reach the former sheriff directly.

Read the court document here