Candidates Joseph Banks and Dawanna Witt participate in a Sheriff's candidate debate on Thurs, Oct. 13 at Richfield High School in Richfield. Credit: Jaida Grey Eagle | Sahan Journal

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Hennepin County voters will make history at the polls in November when they elect their next sheriff.

Dawanna Witt or Joseph Banks will become the first Black sheriff and sheriff of color in Hennepin County. If Witt wins, she’ll become the first Black woman sheriff in the state, according to the Minnesota Sheriffs’ Association. 

Both candidates said representation in law enforcement leadership is important, but is only part of the picture.

“I had to work … to get to where I’m at,” Witt said, reflecting on her 22-year career in law enforcement. “I hope that people see that and say, ‘And she happens to be a Black female.’ But please don’t lose the qualifications that I have to be here.”

Banks said that the prospect of becoming the first Black Hennepin County sheriff doesn’t have too much significance for him.

”Throughout my career I’ve been the first Black officer, first Black police chief quite a bit,” he said chuckling. But he emphasized that it does have “some significance in terms of historical value.”

“I think that we should be mindful of the fact that we want to be a safe community,” Banks said. “We want to make sure that equal justice across the board is being carried out.” 

The Hennepin County sheriff’s job is a four-year post. The office employs 830 people. Roughly 330 of the staffers are licensed deputies; most of the other staffers are civilian employees who work in the county jail. 

The sheriff’s office runs 911 dispatch for 25 of the county’s 45 cities, and deputies assist many local police departments. At least four cities in the county rely exclusively on the sheriff’s office for policing. 

The office also runs the Hennepin County crime lab, oversees security for all state courts in the county, and responds to all water emergencies in county lakes and rivers.

Witt, who has worked in the Hennepin County Sheriff’s Office for three years, is considered the front-runner, having earned 57 percent of the vote in the August primary compared to Bank’s 23 percent. She oversees the Hennepin County jail and security at the county courthouse in downtown Minneapolis and the court’s suburban offices. 

Banks, 52, a Bloomington resident, is a bail bondsman who previously served as chief of three rural Minnesota police departments and hasn’t worked in law enforcement since 2009. He is also co-founder of Twin Cities Recovery Project, a Minneapolis-based nonprofit that helps people with drug addiction. 

Witt, 48, who lives in Minneapolis, is banking on her experience and her unique path into law enforcement. Witt said she grew up in south Minneapolis neighborhoods surrounded by drug dealers and gang members, and that many of her family members have cycled through the very jail she currently commands. She said she shares many of the same concerns community members have expressed about police violence against people of color.

“I never expected to see myself in law enforcement,” Witt said. “I haven’t forgotten where I came from.” 

This, coupled with her long background working in law enforcement, makes her best suited to be the next Sheriff, she said.

“We need people here to do this work, and we need people with the right vision and experience to do that,” Witt said. 

Banks is running as an outsider, and said he will help the sheriff’s office connect better with the community because of his experience in law enforcement and his return to civilian life. He left law enforcement 13 years ago, but maintains a police license that’s good through 2025, according to the Minnesota Peace Officers Standards and Training Board.

“I’ve had a chance to see how what we do affects people,” Banks said. “In this career, you have to look back and see how we affect people, and then you have to make adjustments to that to make things better for those people.” 

The Minneapolis police killings of Terrance Franklin, Jamar Clark, and George Floyd prompted Banks to join the race.

Witt or Banks will succeed Sheriff Dave “Hutch” Hutchinson, who closed out his term with a rocky final year following a drunken driving rollover crash late 2021. Hutchinson has been on leave since May and is not running for reelection. 

Humble beginnings

Witt and Banks advanced to the general election after they bested candidate Jai Hansen in the August primary.

Both candidates come from humble beginnings. Witt grew up in a troubled home. Her father was an alcoholic, and her stepfather was abusive to her mother. Drugs factored into her mother and sister’s deaths. Those experiences helped keep Witt off of a similar path, she said. 

“Instead of being a kid curious about drugs, I was the kid terrified to death of drugs,” she said. 

As the second oldest of five children, Witt said she took on a caretaker role for her younger siblings early in life. Witt then became a mother at age 15. A social worker helped Witt form a social support system as she raised her daughter, and a program supporting teen parents at Minneapolis South High School allowed Witt to bring her daughter to school for child care.

Witt obtained a bachelor’s degree in chemical dependency and family therapy from St. Catherine University. She first worked in social services after college, then took a job as a detention deputy, which doesn’t require a police license, for the Hennepin County Sheriff’s Office in 2000 after she toured the jail. 

“The person who did the tour, she talked about how they needed women and specifically more women of color in that field,” Witt said. 

Witt applied thinking she wouldn’t get the job. The supervisors would know that some of her family members had been through the jail. 

“Mentally I thought there’s no way they’re going to accept me,” she said. “They’re going to know who my uncles are.”

Witt worked with and got to know police officers at the jail. She said that was crucial in her development, because she had been afraid of police officers growing up.

“There was an ah-ha light when I was like, ‘You can go back to school and do this,’” Witt said. 

Witt became a licensed peace officer and started her career at the Dakota County Sheriff’s office in 2004, where she worked in a variety of roles for the next 14 years. She now lives in Minneapolis’ Loring Park neighborhood. 

Dawanna Witt is banking on her experience and her unique path into law enforcement. Credit: Jaida Grey Eagle | Sahan Journal

Banks grew up in housing projects in Robbins, Illinois, near Chicago. Banks said he was raised in an environment that had positive relationships with police officers. 

“We had positive young men who coached basketball, took us to places, and held us accountable,” Banks said. “There were days when I skipped school, and I can remember Lieutenant Wynn scooping me up in the car, giving me the speech, and dropping me off at school.” 

His brother and some of his uncles were also in law enforcement. The baseball coach that helped Banks work on his swing was also a police officer.

“Seeing those guys actually be active, positive members of the community, we weren’t really afraid of the police like that,” Banks said. “We knew that it was something good.” 

Banks joined the Marine Corps after high school, and soon the prospect of a career in law enforcement brought him to Minnesota, where he said jobs paid higher than in Illinois. Banks graduated from Central Lakes College in Brainerd before working in tribal and rural police in southwestern Minnesota.

Banks served as chief of police in Morton, Minnesota, for four months in 2007 before the city council voted to end his employment. Morton city records show that the council held a special meeting in October 2007 to review Banks’ job performance. The council went into closed session to discuss Banks and then publicly and unanimously voted to terminate his employment contract. 

Banks told Sahan Journal he left the Morton Police Department to take a better paying job at the Lower Sioux Police Department, and had given his notice to city officials. 

“Maybe they terminated my employment after I was gone,” he said of the Morton City Council vote. 

Employment records from the state Peace Officer Standards and Training Board show that Banks started employment with the Lower Sioux Police Department one day before the Morton City Council terminated his employment. 

Banks said his time as Morton police chief was rocky, as he struggled to bring “modern policing” to the department. For example, he said the department’s one squad car didn’t have a siren on its roof, and instead had a portable siren. He also said the department didn’t have a computer, so he had to drive about 17 miles to Olivia, Minnesota, to file police reports at the Renville County Sheriff’s Office. 

The Morton City Council minutes from October 2007 list Banks as present at the meeting to terminate his contract. Banks told Sahan Journal that the meeting was about a no-contact order that his partner at the time had filed against him. Banks said his partner filed the no-contact order because he wasn’t paying her rent, and that it was later dismissed. 

Records from Morton show that the city issued a personnel review of Banks in August 2007 that said he was “not visible in the community.” The review also listed “adjust to small town” as one of his weaknesses. Banks said the review was influenced by city officials’ desire for him to complete tasks that are not traditionally executed by police chiefs, including a request that he turn off the lights at the town’s recreation center at night. 

Banks maintains that he lived in Morton while he was chief. “I lived a block away from the police department,” he said. 

As Banks’ strengths, the personnel review listed “very professional” and “easy to work with.” 

Banks chalked the controversy up to small town politics and some community members chafing at a police chief of color. A former city council member who voted to terminate Banks’ employment did not return multiple messages seeking comment. Others have since died or could not be located.

On the issues

Although the sheriff’s position is nonpartisan, Witt has the endorsement of the Democratic-Farmer Labor Party. She is also endorsed by the Hennepin County Sheriff’s deputies union and several elected officials, including Congressman Dean Phillips, nine suburban Hennepin County mayors, four Hennepin County commissioners, three Minneapolis city council members, and six state legislators. Witt’s former boss, Dakota County Sheriff Tim Leslie, also endorsed her. 

Banks, who is running as an independent, does not list endorsements on his campaign website. He co-hosts a community show called “Let’s Talk About It” that runs on YouTube and Minneapolis’ public access TV channel. Banks first ran for Hennepin County Sheriff in 2018, where he came in third in the primary election with 16 percent of the vote. 

According to campaign finance reports filed in August, the most recent filings available, Witt raised more than $51,000 in cash. Minneapolis City Council Member Michael Rainville, Hennepin County attorney candidate Martha Holton Dimick, the American Federation of State, County, Municipal Employees Council 5, and the Minneapolis Building and Construction Trades Council contributed to Witt’s campaign, among others.

Banks raised about $4,500, mostly through his own funds.

Witt and Banks pledge to continue a directive started by Hutchinson last year preventing the county jail from sharing inmates’ booking information with the federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement  agency. The policy also prohibits the jail from holding inmates with detainers from the agency for a longer period of time than they would have been kept for their local case.

A detainer from the immigration agency is a request federal authorities make to local law enforcement agencies asking them to keep inmates in custody beyond their normal release date. That request is typically for an extra 48-hour hold. 

Witt said that as a major in the Hennepin County Sheriff’s Office, she signed the directive, which went into effect in June 2021. Hutchinson has said that his office didn’t enforce the directive earlier because a $1 million federal grant the Hennepin County Board of Commissioners signed onto in 2019 and 2020 placed conditions on the county that compelled the sheriff’s office to work with immigration authorities. 

Witt said the county must be more careful about conditions in federal grants.

“We need to do a better job of making sure what we sign up for, because sometimes there’s bad intentions,” Witt said. 

Witt and Banks said they can’t legally bar immigration agents from entering the jail and interviewing inmates because such agents are law enforcement, echoing Hutchinson’s previous statements. 

“We will counter that by informing everyone in the jail ahead of time that ICE [Immigration and Customs Enforcement] is showing up and that it is their right to say no,” Witt said.

Witt said the sheriff’s office posts notices throughout the jail in multiple languages informing inmates that they can reject interviews with immigration agents.

Banks said he would continue this practice and “take it one step further” by having conversations with immigration agents himself.

Joseph Banks said he will help the sheriff’s office connect better with the community because of his experience in law enforcement and his return to civilian life. Credit: Jaida Grey Eagle | Sahan Journal

Daniel Romero, a member of the Decriminalizing Communities Coalition and a volunteer with the Minnesota Council of Churches, is a pro-immigrant advocate who has pushed Hutchinson on visits by immigration agents. Romero is critical of Hutchinson, Witt, and Banks’ assertion that the sheriff can’t bar such agents from entering the jail.

Romero pointed to Benton County, Oregon, and Franklin County, Ohio, as communities that bar immigration agents from entering their jails. Several other counties in the country also limit jailhouse interrogation by immigration agents, he said.

“Neither candidate has expressed any profound initiatives they’re going to implement that are going to have real quantitative impact on mass incarceration,” Romero said. “It’s disappointing.”

Witt and Banks agree on continuing a drug treatment program that allows inmates to continue substance abuse treatment in jail. 

Banks said he will ban no-knock warrants across the board. Witt said she won’t allow no-knock warrants to become a common practice, and said the sheriff’s office currently doesn’t practice them. But, she added, there are instances when no-knock warrants need to be used, such as hostage situations where lives are in danger. 

No-knock warrants have come under fire nationally, and came under scrutiny locally when Minneapolis police used one in February to enter an apartment, where they fatally shot Amir Locke, who was not connected to the warrant.

The biggest point of disagreement between Witt and Banks is their views on the sheriff’s power and reach. They hashed out the issue at a recent candidate debate. 

Banks described the sheriff as the county’s “top cop” who has authority to investigate and arrest cops from other departments who misbehave. Banks said that as sheriff, he would assign deputies to track officers’ behavior in each police agency in the county. 

Witt argued that the sheriff’s office does not have that authority, and said other law enforcement agencies are not required to cooperate with such investigations by the sheriff’s office. 

“The sheriff cannot just go in and say, ‘Hey Minneapolis, I’m going to investigate,’” Witt said. “That is not what the authority of the sheriff is. That is a falsehood.” 

Banks wants to triple the size of the sheriff’s employee roster to 2,400. Banks said he would push to hire 500 deputies each year until the office gets to the target number.

“It’s going to sound crazy, but it’s robust,” Banks said. 

Witt said the current budget doesn’t cover the number of deputies Banks is proposing, nor is it realistic. 

“I don’t think that would happen, nor do I think that we need 2,400,” she said.

Witt said she will instead focus on hiring 30 new sheriff’s deputies that the Hennepin County Board of Commissioners recently approved funding for. 

Joey Peters is a reporter for Sahan Journal. He has been a journalist for 15 years. Before joining Sahan Journal, he worked for close to a decade in New Mexico, where his reporting prompted the resignation...