The race for Hennepin County Sheriff is approaching the finish line as candidates Major Dawanna Witt and Joseph Banks face off again after placing as the top two among a field of three in August’s primary.
Banks and Witt are running to replace current Hennepin County Sheriff Dave Hutchinson, who is on medical leave for the remainder of his term following a guilty plea for misdemeanor drunken driving after he crashed a county vehicle late last year.
The Hennepin County Sheriff’s Office – which has more than 300 deputies and oversees the state’s largest jail – will have its first Black sheriff despite the victor in this race, but each candidate laid out different visions for how they would do the county’s top cop job.
Witt grew up in north Minneapolis, where she said she was surrounded by drug addiction, alcoholism and violence, which prompted her to study chemical dependency and family therapy at St. Catherine’s University.
After college, she worked first as a nonprofit employee helping families struggling with chemical dependency and dealt with child protection cases. She filled out an application to be a detention deputy at the Hennepin County jail after touring the facility, which prompted her to go back to school to become a licensed peace officer.
Witt later became the first woman to become a sergeant and a captain in the Dakota County Sheriff’s Department, where she worked for 15 years. During that time, she went back to school and earned a double-major master’s degree in public safety administration and management.
In 2019, she got a call from Hutchinson to return to Hennepin County, where she now heads the office’s Adult Detention and Court Services, which oversees the county jail in downtown Minneapolis and provides law enforcement for more than a dozen courthouses with nearly 100 courtrooms.
Witt said her childhood and law enforcement experience, along with the state of the county following the murder of George Floyd and the unrest that followed, plus the pandemic, have all coalesced to compel her to run for the position. The job requires someone with a desire to help people, which Witt said has been her goal since leaving her childhood home.
“I knew that we need someone who understands how to run a sheriff’s office and is doing it for the right reasons,” she said. “I’m someone who absolutely cares about the community – I care about this job, I care about the men and women who do this job, so why not me?”
Banks grew up in Illinois, getting his start in various roles at a police department in suburban Illinois. He joined the U.S. Marine Reserves before returning home for his first position as a part-time officer.
In 1993, he moved to Minnesota and served in the Minnesota Army National Guard as he worked towards a criminal justice degree, and later went on to be chief of the Upper Sioux, Morton and Lower Sioux Police Departments in southern Minnesota. Though he hasn’t been a police officer since 2009, he has remained involved in police-adjacent work, working as a bail bondsman and founding a nonprofit called the Twin Cities Recovery Project to help people struggling with drug addiction.
Banks said growing up watching many of his family members become police officers, and interactions with officers in his community, gave him the drive to want to be like them. Though he stepped away from the profession for a while, he said the police killings of Black men, including Floyd and Jamar Clark, made him want to come back to help make changes in how policing is done.
“I thought we needed to have some accountability and some transparency, and I feel like I could be the kind of person to bring that to the county,” he said.
Witt came out on top in the August primary, garnering 57% of the vote, which was nearly 60,000 votes more than the next candidate. Banks placed second with just over 22% of the vote, edging out Jai Hanson by just two percentage points and moving on to face Witt in the general election next month.
Both candidates said they would continue Hutchinson’s approach to reducing cooperation between the sheriff’s office and U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), which involved a stop to notifying ICE when undocumented inmates were released and curbing warrants for detaining immigrants. And both listed crime and gun violence as priorities, which have become potent election issues in races across the country.
Witt said she would continue the work of the Sheriff’s Office’s Major Crimes Unit and violent offender task force that are out looking for people who commit acts of gun violence, and continue responding to requests for mutual aid by local police departments within the county. She also hopes to expand by recruiting more deputies to do more proactive policing and patrolling.
Banks echoed Witt’s plan to hire more deputies, and both candidates emphasized finding deputies from the different diverse communities across the county to bolster their ranks.
“I want to try to hire folks from the community so they have that buy-in and we are meeting the community with people that they know, and that makes the job that much easier when it’s people that you know,” Banks said.
The two also put forth similar approaches for responding to mental health crises. Banks said he would ensure deputies are trained in how to de-escalate in those situations while also trying co-responder models in certain cases where social workers or mental health professionals accompany officers on calls.
Witt pointed to the sheriff office’s existing partnerships: one with Hennepin Healthcare where mental health professionals provide services to individuals within the jail, and another with the county’s behavioral health division that embeds mental health professionals at dispatch.
The differences in their visions for the job lie in their priorities beyond those things. Witt said a big focus for her would be jail reform, which would involve doing more to prevent recidivism and providing people with services when they leave jail and go back into their communities.
“I believe we need resources to do our part to help people not commit the same act that led them to jail in the first place,” she said. “Don’t get me wrong, I understand we can’t do that for everyone but that doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t try.”
Banks, on the other hand, emphasized rebuilding trust in law enforcement by having deputies be more visible in the community via extra patrols, and reevaluating the way deputies interact with the community.
“I’d make sure our officers understand how to understand their discretionary authority – is it an arrestable moment or is this a teachable moment?” he said. “I’d make sure that we have fair and impartial policing in the community.”
Overall, both candidates emphasize a community-focused role for the sheriff’s department, said Rick Petry, a professor at Mitchell Hamline School of Law. Petry said he has been in Minnesota for more than 20 years, and in that time he’s observed a lack of trust between police and community. And he said many of the major proposed changes after Floyd’s murder have not materialized.
In this race, having two candidates who promise to be community-focused presents the county’s voters with the potential for remedying that problem and making policing better, he said.
“Wherever the people are, then law enforcement should be there as well – not in this ‘us versus them’ capacity but in a partnership capacity,” he said. “If the sheriff’s office can develop more relationships, that helps build trust and helps provide opportunities to develop and nurture.”