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Opinion editor's note: Editorials represent the opinions of the Star Tribune Editorial Board, which operates independently from the newsroom.


Most of us have received phone calls or other fundraising solicitations from law enforcement groups. Calls or mailings often politely seek donations for charitable efforts, training and education. Nothing wrong with that. Other taxpayer-supported groups do the same for good causes — schools, libraries, park systems and others.

But the way in which the Minnesota County Sheriffs' Association recently chose to appeal to residents statewide raises ethical questions. Association leaders should rethink how they conduct their fundraising going forward.

The Star Tribune reported this month that letters were sent to 180,000 Minnesotans asking for donations to a private nonprofit that represents the group. Large text reading "From SHERIFF," followed by the sheriff's name and county, appears at the top of the letters. They were mailed to residents in all 87 counties under the names of the respective county sheriff.

In exchange for a donation, the letter offers donors an association decal (to display in their homes, office or vehicle) and a sheriffs' association membership card.

Seeking contributions is fine, but, troublingly, not all sheriffs knew their names would be used in the letter. And several observers with expertise in politics and law enforcement believe the letters are unethical or at least misleading. Recipients, they say, could think that "membership" or sporting the decal could lead to preferential treatment from sheriff's deputies.

"I think it's easily across the line. I mean, it's unethical," said Larry Jacobs, director of the University of Minnesota's Center for the Study of Politics and Governance.

Matt Bostrom, a former Ramsey County sheriff, said that although sending the letter is legal, he's heard concerns from recipients. Because the letters begin by naming sheriffs individually, they sound like a personal appeal.

"I think there's a concern of, 'Wait a minute, they already have my name and they're asking me for money, how will I feel if I don't give something?'" Bostrom told the Star Tribune. "That's a bad thing, too. You have to be really careful, particularly in law enforcement, when you're trying to raise funds for a good cause."

While the sheriffs interviewed for the news story said they support the association's work, they were unaware that their names would be used.

"They do a lot of great things. We support that mission. But no, I had no idea about this," Hennepin County Sheriff Dawanna Witt told the Star Tribune last week.

The letters say that contributions will be used for programs including de-escalation training and mental health education. Donations also go to scholarships for law enforcement students and the National Sheriffs' Association Triad program that aims to reduce crime against the elderly, according to the letter.

James Stuart, executive director of the Minnesota Sheriffs' Association and a former Anoka County sheriff, defended the association's solicitation letters and rejected the idea that they were improper in any way. But he told a reporter that he also was surprised years ago when he was a sheriff and didn't realize his name was on a letter. To his credit, he said there had been efforts to better notify sheriffs in advance and that he is reviewing the association's solicitation process.

Now that concerns have been raised, that review should include removing individual sheriff's names from the letters and clarifying that the request comes from the state association. And the "gift" for donating could be something other than a membership card or decal.

Taking those steps would allow the association to continue collecting donations for its good work while removing any ethical concerns.