No matter who wins the race, Hennepin County voters are on the verge of electing their first sheriff of color.
The three candidates running for the county's top law enforcement job are Black or of South Asian descent, a milestone for a county where white men have served as sheriff dating back to 1852.
The candidates bring differing resumes, including a former acting police chief of an American Indian community, a longtime Bloomington police officer and a high-ranking major in the county's sheriff's office. Their campaign platforms range from greater accountability to better community engagement.
The three are battling to oversee the $128 million Sheriff's Office, which has 853 employees, and oversees the county jail, runs undercover narcotics investigations and homeland security operations. The Sheriff's Office also oversees enforcement of county waters, like search and rescue operations.
The three candidates come from a wide range of backgrounds and hold differing world views, but the police killing of George Floyd is rippling through the race.
"Some say keep race out of it," said Maj. Dawanna Witt of the Sheriff's Office. "I'm proud to be a Black woman. And I just might happen to be the first Black female sheriff the county has ever had."
The sheriff's job became open this year when embattled David Hutchinson decided not to run for re-election after a single term. He pleaded guilty of misdemeanor drunken driving after crashing his county-owned sport-utility vehicle after a sheriff's convention in Alexandria, Minn., in December. After returning to work briefly, he is now on medical leave for the remainder of his term.
Joseph Banks, 51, the former acting chief of the Lower Sioux Indian Community and police chief in Morton, Minn., who now works as a bail agent, said Hutchinson's accident puts a dark cloud over the office.
"If the top cop is not following the rules, what do his subordinates think?" he said. "People are human, but you have to make smart decisions at that level of law enforcement."
He would like to see the Sheriff's Office take a more active role in policing Minneapolis. He said all the county's 36 police departments need stronger checks and balances and said the Sheriff's Office should have had its own investigation to uncover any problems in the Minneapolis Police Department. He wants to attach a sheriff's deputy to each police department in the county.
Banks, who lost in his bid to unseat Rich Stanek in 2014, co-founded several nonprofits to work with people of color who have had brushes with the law or suffer from chemical dependency issues. He said officers should use more discretion when dealing with people in the community instead of automatically arresting them.
"George Floyd taught us that officers need to slow things down," he said.
Floyd's death struck a deep emotional chord with Jai Hanson, 37, who has more than 20 years in law enforcement in Lakeville and Bloomington. Born in India and adopted at a young age, he was a business major before deciding he wanted to be part of law enforcement. He was driving in the car with his father, now a retired Minnesota Supreme Court justice, who asked if he ever wanted to be a police officer.
"He told me I would have a great demeanor for it," said Hanson. "Now I want to fight the largest crime wave in state history."
He said he wants to have a sheriff's office in north Minneapolis and to have the county buy up abandoned houses and renovate them as meeting places where children can go after school to receive tutoring and feel safe. He also wants to start a program to get more people of color to work in the Sheriff's Office.
"It would be very humbling to me to be elected the first sheriff of color," he said. "It's something I would never take for granted."
Witt, 48, oversees the two largest divisions in the Hennepin County Sheriff's Office, court security and adult detention. She became the first female captain when she worked for the Dakota County Sheriff's Office.
She teaches juvenile justice and American corrections at Inver Hills Community College and is on a state advisory panel on child protection and law enforcement education reform.
If elected, Witt said her priorities would include targeting violent crime, supporting police departments with community specific issues and creating programs for jail inmates that focus on substance abuse and mental health support and obtaining employment. She also hopes to stem the growing problem of deputy retention.
Her career in law enforcement was a happy accident, she said. Witt was working for a nonprofit when a friend who was a juvenile probation officer took her on a tour of a county jail.
"She told me that we needed more women of color in law enforcement," she said. "I never really thought about it, but I applied to become a detention officer at the jail."
That changed her perception of people in law enforcement, which didn't include much positive engagement when she was growing up. But now, making people feel safe is the most gratifying thing in the world, she said.
"If elected, I will be proud if somebody said she is someone from our community that looks like me and is the leader of the Sheriff's Office," she said.