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Six months in, Hennepin County Sheriff Hutchinson is focused on the department’s morale — and its brand

“The public wants us to do 21st-century law enforcement,” Hutchinson said. “They want us to buy into this new age of law enforcement.”

Hennepin County Sheriff Hutchinson
Following a report this spring that showed 40 percent of people in Minnesota who died from an opioid overdose in 2018 served time at the Hennepin County Jail, Sheriff Dave Hutchinson launched a new program that gives deputies the ability to more quickly connect inmates grappling with addiction and withdrawal to medical professionals.
MinnPost photo by Jessica Lee

When he was running for Hennepin County sheriff last year, Dave “Hutch” Hutchinson waged a campaign that appealed to the county’s progressives, taking on some of the region’s most controversial issues — such as how the law enforcement agency should interact with federal immigration authorities or intervene in the opioid epidemic.

He also promised sweeping changes not only in how the department interacted with the public but also how it treated its employees, claiming that his predecessor, Rich Stanek, lacked transparency and accessibility.

Now, roughly six months since Hutchinson took over the office, the new sheriff has sought to improve how the rank-and-file communicate with the department’s management, as well as how the agency gets along with public-safety officials from other agencies across the metro area.

“He’s been an excellent partner, and it’s clear his values inform his work — that was clear early on,” Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey said. “We communicate on a consistent basis.”

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‘The public wants us to do 21st-century law enforcement’

In his former job as a Metro Transit sergeant, Hutchinson initially envisioned himself as a campaign volunteer for someone who had more progressive values than Stanek, who served as Republican legislator and public safety commissioner under Gov. Tim Pawlenty before becoming Hennepin County sheriff in 2007. But when no one stepped up to challenge Stanek, Hutchinson filed for the office himself.

The race heated up fast. Both candidates faced allegations of illegal campaign activity, and both had strong pockets of support in different parts of the Hennepin County; Stanek backers tended to live in the suburbs, while Hutchinson drew most of his support from the city of Minneapolis.

In his campaign, Hutchinson and his supporters made the involvement of the sheriff’s office with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) a major focus. Alongside immigration-rights activists and some elected leaders, Hutchinson argued that Stanek had been going too far in helping federal immigration authorities target people coming in and out of jail by asking inmates their birthplace during bookings. Stanek maintained that state law requires officers to ask about birthplaces, while other laws mandate officers identify people from other countries to give them the option of speaking to their foreign consulate.

The internal politics of the department also became an issue during the campaign, with Hutchinson saying the agency under Stanek hadn’t always established successful pipelines for staff to move up, and that morale was low. Dispatchers at the 911 call center, for example, said they felt overworked and understaffed.

Sheriff Dave Hutchinson
MinnPost photo by Jessica Lee
Sheriff Dave Hutchinson
To help address those employee-related issues, Hutchinson said he has spent his first several months in the job trying to build relationships within the department and launch new programs that focus on employees’ wellness. He has toured different sections of the agency and established regular meetings with different members of the staff.

“We want them to actually have a stake in the organization,” Hutchinson said.

Hutchinson is touting a new peer-to-peer support program to help staff balance the demands of law enforcement and their personal lives. Efforts are underway to build a new county-sponsored wellness center and a gym within the next year, he said.

“We need to be healthy to go outside, or in the jail, and maintain some sort of order with unhealthy people,” he said. “We’re trying to explore a bunch of different ways to make sure that everybody who’s dealing with trauma, in one way or another, is getting help with that. … We know that that sort of thing builds up.”

For issues at the 911 dispatch center, Hutchinson said his administration is in the process of hiring a civilian leader to replace a sworn captain, a change that aims to improve the operation’s efficiency and retention rate. A new mental health professional is also part of his plan to help callers and alleviate some of the pressure on dispatchers.

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In terms of the department’s relationship with ICE, Hutchinson said they’ve changed departmental policy so jail staff no longer make daily phone calls to ICE to share details on foreign-born inmates. (Stanek said such calls were never part of jail procedure.) But a rule to notify foreign consulates remains in effect under state and federal laws. The county’s jail roster is publicly available online, however, so immigration officials can still use that tool if they needed to look someone up.

“[Removing the daily phone call to ICE] is an easy fix and it helps a lot, but it’s not the end all be all,” Hutchinson said, emphasizing how the department is in the process of researching other policy changes, too. “We’re not trying to hinder their [ICE’s] ability to get who they need to get. Our goal is to separate. They can do their job, we can do our job.”

Hutchinson said the majority of public feedback he gets suggests people support the department’s attempt to distance itself from ICE, though he also says some residents feel the policy reveals a “liberal agenda” — a claim Hutchinson denied. “The agenda is to treat people the same,” he said of detainees.

Hutchinson has other changes planned for the county jail. He said the department is doubling the number of captains who oversee the facility, from one to two, and eventually he wants the jail to be mostly run by detention deputies — the department’s entry-level law enforcement position — to free up higher-ranking officers for positions in other parts of the agency.

Following a report this spring that showed 40 percent of people in Minnesota who died from an opioid overdose in 2018 served time at the Hennepin County Jail, Hutchinson launched a new program that gives deputies the ability to more quickly connect inmates grappling with addiction and withdrawal to medical professionals.

Other changes by Hutchinson include the creation of a citizen-led community engagement team, and new hires in several units, such as data intelligence and K-9. The department is trying to hire deputies from outside the department; In the past, incoming officers always served as detention deputies at the jail before taking the licensing exam to move to patrol or working in other units.

“Some people start that path, and they don’t make it to license because they don’t enjoy working in the jail,” said Jeremy Zoss, the sheriff’s director of communications. “Well, that person could have been a great patrol officer, great analyst, something else, but they’ll never get that chance because they never go through that program. By hiring outside of the jail, you get a better chance of getting people who are going to stick around.”

Hutchinson has also spent time pushing for aesthetic changes within the department aimed at differentiating the old sheriff’s administration from the new. For instance, he is excited about new pins he hands out at public events and for a new design for the department’s squad cars, which will be applied to all new vehicles in the agency. The sheriff’s office leases most of its vehicles, he said, so it’s a constantly rotating fleet, and all incoming cars will have the new logo.

“The public wants us to do 21st-century law enforcement,” he said. “They want us to buy into this new age of law enforcement. We need to look like we’re 21st century. We need to have nice cars. Those cars are outdated, and they’re ugly — the old brown ones. People don’t feel new and refreshed.”

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‘He made a lot of promises’

Three former leaders of Stanek’s administration remain on Hutchinson’s team, a factor that both Hutchinson and Stanek say helped the transition between them.

Yet Stanek said he believes the current administration is repackaging successes of his era as wins for itself, mentioning the decrease in the number of jail bookings for misdemeanor offenses; the department’s partnership with the Minneapolis Police Department to increase patrols downtown; and the reduction of violent crime across the county. Stanek also highlighted how his administration hired the majority of staff members who work within the department now.

Rich Stanek
MinnPost photo by Jessica Lee
Rich Stanek
“He made a lot of promises — at some point, the honeymoon comes to an end,” Stanek said of Hutchinson. “You need to be held accountable for those [promises].”

In last year’s election, the Hennepin County Sheriff’s Deputies Association (HCSDA), the union representing some 270 deputies, endorsed Stanek over Hutchinson, and in media interviews union president Tim Chmielewski often praised Stanek.

Since the election, however, the union has come around on Hutchinson, says Deputy Dave O’Donnell, who joined the department in 2004 and is the vice president of the HCSDA. He said membership appreciates Hutchinson’s open-door policy and some of the staff-friendly policies he’s has put in place, including changes to the department’s dress code that allow tattoos, facial hair and different uniform pants, as well as amendments to staff scheduling rules at the jail. “Morale has gone way up since he’s taken office,” O’Donnell said. “No one’s a number. Everyone’s a person here, and that’s refreshing.”

(Stanek said he has maintained contact with many members of the department, as well as leaders of local and national law-enforcement organizations, which belies the notion that he wasn’t accessible while sheriff, he said.)

Ramsey County Sheriff Bob Fletcher, who recaptured the county’s top law-enforcement position in last fall’s election after serving four terms beginning in 1994, said he met Hutchinson for the first time after his election. Now, Fletcher said they talk about public-safety strategies on an almost-daily basis.

In January, for example, Fletcher said they coordinated efforts to help people without permanent homes find shelter to escape the extreme winter temperatures. The sheriff’s departments have also combined crime intelligence teams to piece together evidence in a recent series of burglaries that spanned the two counties.

“I know I’m getting an honest, hardworking response from a person that’s just trying to get the job done,” Fletcher said. “I thought Stanek did a good job of managing his department, as well, and he knew a lot about law enforcement, as well — clearly, I have a more regular relationship with Hutch.”