Last month marked three years since the murder of George Floyd and the burning of Minneapolis' Third Precinct. As a south Minneapolis native and a law enforcement officer, my shock over those events was immediately followed by thoughts of how to rebuild the neighborhood, the businesses and the law enforcement profession. I am grateful for the racial reckoning of the last three years that has elevated the discourse around police reform, compassion, training and accountability. Many changes are necessary and overdue. We are responsible for rebuilding public trust in our profession, and I take that extremely seriously.
At the same time, public officials must also recognize that funding public safety is more necessary today than ever. Over the last four years, we've experienced sharp increases in gun violence, fentanyl overdose deaths and juvenile crime. As these societal problems have spiked, recruitment and retention of law enforcement professionals have become increasingly difficult. This is a dangerous combination.
To help cities, counties and tribal reservations address the unprecedented increase in safety issues, Gov. Tim Walz allocated $550 million in one-time public safety aid in his 2023 budget proposal. The funds eventually passed at the $300 million level after negotiations between the two chambers of the Legislature. Still, in a last-minute, backroom change, legislators removed a requirement for counties to consult with their county sheriff in distributing the funds. As the Hennepin County sheriff, I am statutorily required to preserve the peace in our county. Elected officials redirect crime-concerned constituents to law enforcement officials. If we in law enforcement are responsible for public safety, we must be given the resources to address it.
The rise in gun violence since 2019 demands a robust response from law enforcement. However, due to strained resources, our ability to investigate these cases in a timely manner has been severely hampered. We have a shortage of both forensic experts and technologically advanced equipment needed to solve gun-related crimes promptly. At the Hennepin County Sheriff's Office forensic science lab, firearm processing requests are up 148% since 2019. As a result, turnaround time has greatly increased. Increased turnaround time prolongs the execution of justice, fueling the "street justice" intrinsic to the cycle of violence. U.S. Rep. Dean Phillips and U.S. Sen. Tina Smith recognized the urgency of this issue. Earlier this year, they submitted crime lab technology enhancements for federal appropriations funding. Funding these enhancements will both bring perpetrators to justice and exonerate innocent people. And expeditious investigations are data-proven to deter future criminal behavior.
Critics may argue that funding the police perpetuates the status quo and overlooks the need for systemic reform. It does just the opposite. It allows us to be proactive instead of just reactive. More funding allows for more jail programming, community engagement and investigators. By having the personnel to provide a consistent presence in our communities and schools, we can prevent crime, violence and self-harm before it occurs.
At the moment, we are struggling to even provide the basics. Law enforcement agencies are responsible for maintaining a visible presence in our communities, deterring criminal activities and ensuring public safety. However, the increasing workload coupled with reduced staffing levels has left some municipal departments with too few officers to provide basic patrol. Our short-staffed Hennepin County Sheriff's Office is responsible, in these cases, for providing sheriff's deputies from our own ranks to patrol these cities (see Minnesota Statute 387.03).
There are some areas where the burden on police has been, and should continue to be, reduced. For example, local and state governments have invested heavily in embedded social workers, violence interrupters and harm reduction for addiction. We accept this help with open arms — collaboration and integration is more necessary today than ever before.
Those investments do not fully replace the need for licensed law enforcement officers. Nor should they. Social workers who respond to mental health calls rightfully expect police to back them up in most circumstances.
Unfortunately, the overall trend since 2020 has been to place additional burden on Sheriff's Office employees — whether in our jail, crime lab or on the street. Our metro counties closed all of the local facilities that used to rehabilitate juveniles who commit serious and violent crimes. And since 2021, the Department of Human Services has failed to transfer mentally ill inmates out of our jail within 48 hours of civil commitment, as is mandated by state law. When other agencies fail to fulfill their responsibility, the buck is passed to law enforcement and community members.
Since 2020, it has become clear that unrest and violence fill the vacuum that is left when our institutions fail. A rise in crime, the call for full transparency and accountability, staffing shortages in neighboring agencies, and a desire for strong, compassionate, community-oriented policing require us to do more. A depleted law enforcement pipeline, PTSD claims and rampant early retirements have given us less personnel and increased competition for recruits. We can and should do more. We are being forced to make do with less. We cannot do more with less.
Safety is foundational to a thriving community. I thank Gov. Walz, state Sen. Ann Rest and our legislative leadership for including these crucial public safety aid funds in the final tax bill. Most importantly, I look forward to allocating these resources to advance compassionate and effective public safety in Hennepin County.
Dawanna Witt is the Hennepin County sheriff.