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When dozens of worshipers were killed at a mosque in New Zealand several months ago, Hennepin County Sheriff Dave Hutchinson visited a local mosque without any media in tow. It was the right thing to do, he said.

In his upset victory last November over longtime Sheriff Rich Stanek, Hutchinson portrayed himself as a “man of the people.” During the first six months in office, he let employees wear more facial hair and exposed tattoos, advocated for driver’s licenses for undocumented immigrants and began treating jail inmates with opioid disorders.

His jump from Metro Transit police sergeant to sheriff of the state’s largest county concerned some law enforcement leaders in the Twin Cities. But they say that Hutchinson, 39, is surrounded with a strong management team, asks the right questions and engages often with the community. Even the deputies’ union supports his early efforts.

Hutchinson preaches transparency and outreach, he said, so the public understands law enforcement better and stops demonizing officers. He said he’s more open to new ideas than Stanek’s administration was, and he said he wants to accomplish as much as possible by the end of his four-year term.

“For the first time in my law enforcement career I can be a driving force of change and not listen to somebody who doesn’t have my best interests at heart,” he said. “That’s kind of a cool feeling.”

Since he took office in January, Hutchinson hasn’t had to address any critical situations or make sweeping personnel and policy changes. Several watchdog groups, including the ACLU of Minnesota, said they haven’t had enough interaction to judge him so far. For some of them, just being a sheriff not named Stanek gives Hutchinson a fresh advantage.

“The new sheriff’s values clearly inform his work, that much is very clear,” said Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey. “We are constantly in contact by phone. He is engaged internally and externally. He is community-focused and community-driven.”

For Hutchinson, improving employee wellness and morale is a priority. He spent time introducing himself to many of his 800 licensed deputies and department civilians, changed uniform policies for greater comfort and instituted peer-to-peer support groups and a mentorship program. He also plans to create a wellness center for employees at Minneapolis City Hall.

“All of my members that I’ve talked to have given me positive feedback about the sheriff,” said Tim Chmielewski, president of the union that represents 260 Hennepin County deputies, detectives and crime lab employees.

Hennepin County Board Chairwoman Marion Greene and Minneapolis Police Chief Medaria Arradondo said they’ve been impressed by Hutchinson’s collaborative attitude and strategic thinking, especially with regard to his initiatives tackling the opioid crisis as it hit the Hennepin County jail.

A study showed that about 40% of people in the state who died from an opioid overdose last year spent time at the jail. Stunned by those numbers, Hutchinson signed off on a program to treat inmates with opioid disorders and withdrawal. That includes using a body scanner to detect hidden drugs, screening inmates for opioid issues and training deputies on overdose symptoms.

More than 50 people have been treated for opioid issues at the county jail, and most have stayed on medication and gone to treatment after they were released, said Dr. Tyler Winkelman, a clinician for Hennepin Healthcare who wrote the report on overdose deaths. He said opioid treatment in jails is uncommon because sheriffs often are reluctant to commit medical staffers and training to a problem many don’t see as a medical issue.

“I would rather see people leave jail healthier so maybe they can straighten out their lives and not return,” said Hutchinson.

Immigration concerns

Immigration enforcement provided a steady source of complaints about Stanek, who was frequently criticized for his policy asking inmates their birthplace, something he said he was legally required to do. He also took heat for programs to counter violent extremism and for offering extra information on jailed immigrants and inmates who are in the country illegally to federal agencies.

“Sheriff Hutchinson has been responsive to concerns around immigrant issues that haunted us under the previous sheriff,” said Jaylani Hussein, executive director of the local chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations. “It’s too early to determine the impact, but we believe he has made a commitment.”

Hutchinson said that he stopped Stanek’s practice of alerting U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement about jail inmates who are here illegally. Over the past few months, he said, his office has met with groups and lawyers to make sure that policy changes were made the right way. Some of those meetings included the sheriff’s community engagement team and advisory board.

“That means not violating any laws and making sure that we are not being used as an enforcement arm of the federal government,” he said. “We have made policy decisions to meet this goal, and those policies will go into place in the next month.”

Areas that Hutchinson said needed improvement were diversity hiring and educating his office on racial disparities. There were some diversity gains in a recent group of hires, but activists such as Pablo Tapia are disappointed with the lack of minorities on the Sheriff’s Office command staff.

“We met with the sheriff on this issue before he was elected, and we are still waiting to set up another forum with him,” said Tapia, co-founder of the advocacy group Asamblea de Derechos Civiles, or Assembly for Civil Rights. “We think there are qualified people for the job.”

Happier employees, better-treated jail inmates and attentiveness to community issues all play a role in improving the county’s public safety, said Hutchinson. While Minneapolis is the key driver of county crime, violent crime in the first three months of 2019 in Hennepin County has dropped 19% compared with the same period last year.

A moral compass

To boost patrol and investigative work, Hutchinson has added two K-9 officers, a resource officer at Rockford High School and a data intelligence analyst. The Sheriff’s Office has adopted an app that supplies first responders with information about vulnerable adults, hired more 911 dispatchers and installed a national ballistics database.

Hutchinson’s amiable personality showed when he talked about the new squad color (black) and lettering (more modern), saying that “it brings out the nerd” in him. He joked that he will start running — or walking briskly — once the Sheriff Office’s new workout equipment arrives.

Hutchinson tells his deputies that if they follow the law and office policy and operate with a moral compass, “I will back you to the moon and back.” If not, he said he doesn’t want them working for the Sheriff’s Office.

“We want to keep lowering overdose deaths, and gang and violent crime,” Hutchinson said. “We’ve been working on things behind the scenes, and the next six months will be really interesting.”

David Chanen • 612-673-4465