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Three who would lead: takeaways from the Hennepin County sheriff candidate forum  

The Hennepin County Sheriff’s Office has a budget north of $120 million and more than 800 employees.

Hennepin County Sheriff candidates from left: Joseph Banks, Jai Hanson, and Dawanna Witt.
Hennepin County Sheriff candidates from left: Joseph Banks, Jai Hanson, and Dawanna Witt.
MinnPost photo by Bill Kelley

The three candidates vying to be the next sheriff of Hennepin County participated in a League of Women Voters forum at St. Louis Park City Hall on Wednesday night. 

One of them will replace Sheriff David Hutchinson. He chose not to run for reelection after pleading guilty to misdemeanor drunken driving, a charge stemming from an incident in which Hutchinson crashed a county vehicle in December. He is on medical leave for the remainder of his lone term in office. 

The future leader of the Hennepin County Sheriff’s Office, an outfit that has a budget north of $120 million and more than 800 employees, will come from the candidate pool of Dawanna Witt, Jai Hanson and Joseph Banks.

The questions for last night’s forum were written by audience members. Here’s what the candidates had to say in response:

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Cooperating — or not — with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement

Last year, Hutchinson announced changes to how Hennepin County would interact with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). He removed ICE’s office at the county jail, limited warrants for detaining immigrants and stopped notifying ICE when undocumented inmates were released. 

Candidates were asked if they would continue this approach. 

Banks, who works as a bail agent and used to be chief of the Morton Police Department and acting chief of the Lower Sioux Indian Community, said he would. 

“When folks are being brought into jail and the first concern is to their heritage, in my mind, that is not equal justice,” said Banks. 

Witt currently works for Hennepin County Sheriff’s Office leading the court security and adult detention divisions and participated in the initiative to wind down cooperation with ICE.

Joseph Banks: “When folks are being brought into jail and the first concern is to their heritage, in my mind, that is not equal justice.”
MinnPost photo by Bill Kelley
Joseph Banks: “When folks are being brought into jail and the first concern is to their heritage, in my mind, that is not equal justice.”
“If ICE wants to pick someone up, they need a federal warrant signed,” said Witt, who is also a former Dakota County Sheriff’s Department captain, confirming she would continue Hutchinson’s approach of keeping ICE at arm’s length. 

Hanson said he would not “give a political answer” in which he takes a stand against seeking collaboration with any other agency. He said, though, he would inform inmates of their right to refrain from speaking with ICE. 

But, said Hanson, who has been a police officer for over 20 years in Bloomington and Lakeville, he would not reject the help of other agencies in his attempt to tamp down crime. 

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“We are in the biggest crime wave in the history of the state,” Hanson said, adding that, to combat this trend, an “all hand on deck” outlook is needed. 

Gun violence

A Hennepin County guns task force, in one week, took 36 guns off the street and jailed nearly 100 people, Witt said. 

“Two weeks ago, I took a loaded handgun off a 15-year-old,” said Hanson. “It has kind of become the norm.”

Banks said he would work with federal agencies, like the FBI and Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, to target gun sales — particularly online, where, Banks said, young people have access to guns they wouldn’t able to obtain in their neighborhoods.

Jai Hanson: “Two weeks ago, I took a loaded handgun off a 15-year-old. It has kind of become the norm.”
MinnPost photo by Bill Kelley
Jai Hanson: “Two weeks ago, I took a loaded handgun off a 15-year-old. It has kind of become the norm.”
Hanson concurred that the county needs to team up with federal partners to curb gun violence. 

Witt, after mentioning that the county has a task force already, said an increase in staffing would be the next step. 

Managing police forces during joint efforts

Police chiefs throughout Hennepin County have expressed concerns over waves of crime like carjackings. 

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This is often followed by a call for a “metrowide” response, Hanson said. 

“That metrowide response is called the sheriff’s department,” Hanson said. He noted that he’s heard from police chiefs who feel hamstrung by their city’s mayor and council. “As sheriff, you don’t answer to a city council and you don’t answer to a mayor.” And, Hanson said, he is aware of meetings among police chiefs that did not include a representative from the sheriff’s department.

Witt pointed out that the sheriff’s department’s budget is controlled by the Hennepin County Board, and so the sheriff has to answer to the county, she said. As an employee of the county, Witt said she knows the sheriff’s department is present for just about any multi-jurisdictional police chief meeting. 

Her approach would be to take current efforts to coordinate police departments and be sure to share a focus on issues plaguing cities as well as suburban and urban areas of Hennepin County. 

Banks noted that the county oversees a population of over 1 million people but has around 270 deputies. 

“Mutual aid is definitely key,” Banks said. 

Union discipline

Each candidate has decried the death of George Floyd during this campaign season. During the forum, they each pointed to the failure of keeping an officer like Derek Chauvin in the ranks. 

“Other agencies get a bad rap because people think all unions are the same” Witt said. “All unions are not the same.” She noted that Hennepin County Sheriff’s Department has multiple unions — one for licensed officers, one for the detention division and another for supervisors — and the work of those unions to defend the legal rights of their members is admirable. 

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An issue worth looking into, Witt said, is often with mediators who force law enforcement departments to rehire someone who might not be right for the job. She also supports installing a tracking system that would provide alerts of issues right away. 

Banks said he would not hesitate to fire a deputy with a growing misconduct record.

Dawanna Witt: “Other agencies get a bad wrap because people think all unions are the same. All unions are not the same.”
MinnPost photo by Bill Kelley
Dawanna Witt: “Other agencies get a bad rap because people think all unions are the same. All unions are not the same.”
“I would rather cut a check to you today for getting rid of you than to put you out in the community and putting people’s lives at risk,” Banks said, adding that he would find a way around union processes to ensure no unfit officer is on patrol. “We can arbitrate as much as we want too. I will put you behind a desk, I will stick you in the corner, but you are not gonna go back on those streets and hurt people.”

“Nobody dislikes a bad officer more than a good officer,” Hanson said, adding that he would strive to install union leadership who keep officers accountable.

“We have to have [union] leadership who support good police officers,” he said. 

Mental health calls

For calls regarding mental health crises, each candidate had varying approaches but each was rooted in compassion. 

“We need to meet people where they are at, know how to talk to people and know what questions to ask,” Witt said. 

Hanson said deputies need education in order to pull off such conversations, and that he would pull deputies from mental health calls if they don’t take the time to learn how to properly engage with someone suffering in such a crisis. 

“My response is to slow down,” said Hanson. “There is no clock on dealing with somebody with a mental health issue.” 

The priority, Hansons said, would be to teach deputies that taking control of an incident does not always mean taking physical control.