Election 2022: Hennepin County Sheriff

During the primary, I endorsed Dawanna Witt because she struck me as a lot more likely to be able to beat Jai Hansen, who I really didn’t like. I totally assumed Jai would make it through the primary! He did not. So now the question is — absent that, do I prefer Dawanna Witt, or Joseph Banks? Despite having some doubts about Dawanna, and having taken a somewhat closer look at Joseph Banks … I’m going to say it’s still Dawanna Witt.

On the ballot:

Dawanna Witt
Joseph Banks

Dawanna Witt has worked for the Hennepin County Sheriff’s office, specifically, for a really long time — mainly she runs the jail. Joseph Banks is a retired former chief of police for the Lower Sioux Community and Morton, MN. They both talk about wanting to improve public safety, transparency, and community relationships. They’re both Black, and Dawanna talks about fearing and distrusting police for years before getting an entry-level job working at the jail.

Dawanna is endorsed by the DFL and a lot of other organizations; Joseph Banks, as far as I can tell, doesn’t have any endorsements at all. (ETA: I missed that he was endorsed by the Independence-Alliance Party, aka the Jessecrats. But he doesn’t put that on his website, and given that this group also endorsed Hugh McTavish in the Governor’s race, I’m not reassured that they’re vetting people with any criteria I’d recognize as useful.)

There was a debate earlier this month and I watched the recording of it to see if I could get any better clarity than “look, Dawanna’s at least been vetted by people who know more about this job than I do, and they think she’d be OK.” The debate is online here.

One really interesting exchange took place about an hour in. (It actually starts at 57:15, if you want to watch.) Joseph said, in response to a question about tangible steps toward accountability, “Let’s be clear on this: the Sheriff department is the top cop in the county. […] It is the Sheriff’s responsibility to police the police. It is the Sheriff’s job to make sure that we’re holding law enforcement officers accountable in our county.” When Dawanna got the floor she opened with, “There is no statute that will give you the authority to tell a municipality what to do. That is not your job as a Sheriff.”

This left me really wanting to know — could the Hennepin County Sheriff’s staff go out and investigate and arrest Minneapolis police officers who commit murder or assault or whatever in their line of work? Because that’s not happening right now, but if Joseph were elected and just decided it was part of the Sheriff’s duties, could they? I asked Twitter and did not get a particularly conclusive answer. It’s not written in the statutes but it’s not forbidden by the statutes, and Sheriffs as elected officials (rather than appointed/hired staff) can in some ways kind of do what they want (see, for example, Dave Hutchinson’s refusal to resign despite wrecking a car while drunk off his ass). Also — would we want this? I mean it’s sort of tempting to say “hell, yes,” given that the cop who pepper-sprayed nonviolent protesters out his car window while driving by has to my knowledge never even been identified, never mind charged.

But … okay, so having looked at Joseph Banks’ website, he doesn’t mention this anywhere as a goal, he just pulled it out during the debate. His platform talks about better coordination with MPD and other agencies; it does not say anywhere, “by the way, we could TOTALLY go arrest Minneapolis cops for brutality, vote me in and we’ll start doing that,” which is kind of funny because that would have gotten him a lot of attention from some of the local groups, especially if he really seemed like he could make that stick.

“Does he seem like he could make that stick” is another question. In addition to “is he serious about this thing he brought up at a debate but doesn’t mention on his website,” I’m reminded of a comment someone made during the primary about Mary Moriarty vs. one of the other candidates running as a reformer — reform is extremely hard and you’re a lot less likely to succeed at it if you don’t know the existing system really well. Dawanna has worked for the Sheriff’s office (for years); Joseph Banks has not.

Joseph has worked as a chief of police, though: “In 2005, I started working for the Lower Sioux Police Department until I accepted a position as Chief of Police with the Upper Sioux Police Department. I then served as the Chief of Police for Morton, Minnesota. I then returned to the Lower Sioux Police Department where I was the Chief Investigator and the acting Chief of Police.” The Upper Sioux reservation has a population of 120. Morton, MN has a population of 411, and at the present time does not have a police department — its policing is done by the Renville County Sheriff’s Department. This is pretty standard for very small towns and honestly, I’m surprised that they ever had their own Chief of Police, with a population that small. By comparison: the Hennepin County Sheriff’s office has 800 people working for it.

So — yeah, okay, that detail all by itself makes me deeply skeptical of Joseph, even as it also explains why (in the debate) he kind of airily said that anyone who committed misconduct would be gone, he’d fire them. (It’s frequently not that simple, which is part of the problem. Dawanna said that she would fire the bad actors if she could, but if she could not, she’d put them on desk duty.) He’s been a Chief of Police, twice, but in the larger of the two places, the whole community was less than half the size of the department he’d be running as Sheriff.

In some ways, Joseph Banks presents himself as more of a reformer than Dawanna. But when someone comes in to a high-level position where they’re kind of over their head, what tends to happen is that all the people under them just kind of keep doing what they’re doing. And this is a department that was run for years by Stanek (and then for the last four by Hutch, but he’s been largely checked out for most of the last year. His car crash was in December of 2021 and he apparently spent a bunch of 2022 vindictively running up bills.) I think the changes Dawanna is proposing (things like an information dashboard, making it more efficient to check people into the jail, an expansion of education and treatment options for people who are in the jail awaiting trial) are more modest, but also she’s vastly more likely to get them done.

I would vote for Dawanna Witt.

ETA 10/25: There was a good article in the Sahan Journal about the race. Some additional details mentioned: Joseph Banks hasn’t worked in law enforcement since 2009; his job in Morton, MN only lasted four months; he was fired by the City Council in a closed session after a meeting to discuss a no-contact order filed by his former partner. The article also notes that he wants to triple the number of deputies to 2,400, hiring 500 deputies per year until they reach that number; Dawanna Witt says that’s not in the budget (even remotely) and she will hire 30 additional deputies, the number actually budgeted for by the county.

Anyway, this article confirmed my broad impression that Dawanna Witt is competent and would know what she is doing in this office and Joseph Banks is sort of a flake.

In addition to writing political commentary, I write science fiction and fantasy. My book that came out in April 2021, Chaos on CatNet, takes place in a future Minneapolis. It’s a sequel to Catfishing on CatNet and signed copies of both books are usually available from Dreamhaven and the NOW REOPENED Uncle Hugo’s (it’s at 2716 E 31st St in Minneapolis, in the former Glass Endeavors.)

I do not have a Patreon or Ko-Fi, but you can make a donation to encourage my work! I get a lot of satisfaction watching fundraisers I highlight getting funded (or, in the case of the Movement Voter fundraiser, continuing to raise money past their goal). I explained back in May why I’m fundraising for the Movement Voter PAC and that fundraiser is still active.

I also went looking for some DonorsChoose fundraisers. In Minneapolis, I found a science teacher at Sullivan STEAM magnet needs some better computers so his students can actually program the cool robots they got. In St. Paul, I found an English teacher at Harding Senior High who would like snacks for her students.


2 thoughts on “Election 2022: Hennepin County Sheriff

  1. There;s a typo here that confused me briefly: it says ” be Jai Hansen” and I’m fairly sure from the rest of the sentence that you meant to write “beat Jai Hansen.”

  2. For reference, my county sherriff’s department HAS given citations and tickets to uniformed police from another department (Cornell University Police). I remember watching the undersherriff chewing out the Cornell cop for parking in a bus stop while writing the ticket.

    Legally, the sherriffs absolutely have jurisdiction to arrest criminals in other police departments, provided those criminals have committed county or state level crimes or violations (rather than violations of city ordinance only).

    Whether they would face illegal social pushback for doing so is another matter. Cops get supported for arresting dirty cops in Ithaca, NY, where we like seeing dirty cops arrested (ever since the NY State Police Troop C scandal). But I don’t know what it’s like in Minnesota.

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