Hennepin County Sheriff-elect Dawanna Witt vowed Thursday to strengthen the relationship between the Sheriff's Office and city of Minneapolis, and said she is looking at creating a separate advisory board to focus on curbing crime in Minnesota's largest city.
Underscoring her close bond with the city, Witt held her first news conference at City Hall. She choked up sharing how it felt after voters chose her Tuesday as the first Black woman to oversee the 170-year-old office.
"It feels wonderful. I never saw myself in this position," Witt said, her comments echoing through the rotunda of City Hall. "As the first Black person and woman to hold the office, I'm thinking about who did I just pave the way for, what is the next generation going to look like by giving them that hope."
Witt said she is pulling together a transition team "so I can be ready on Day One" when she is sworn in Jan. 3. She will become the county's 29th sheriff.
A major with the Sheriff's Office, Witt, 48, on Tuesday defeated Joseph Banks, a bail bondsman and former small-town police chief.
She will succeed one-term Sheriff David Hutchinson, who said he would not seek re-election after a drunken-driving crash that totaled a county-owned SUV. He has been away on an undisclosed medical leave since May, leaving the county's top law enforcement job essentially vacant.
Witt will take over a sprawling law enforcement agency that employs 830 people, including about 330 licensed deputies. Most of the other staffers work in the county jail. The Sheriff's Office runs 911 dispatch for more than half of the county's 45 cities and oversees a massive crime lab.
In addition, the office handles security for all state courts in the county and is charged with responding to water emergencies on county lakes and rivers.
In her comments Thursday, Witt also stressed the office's efforts to reduce violent crime, including its collaboration with Minneapolis on crime strategies.
"I know Sheriff Witt will be excellent partner because she's already doing the work," said Mayor Jacob Frey, who endorsed her candidacy.
The mayor said Witt has established a close working relationship with key people in City Hall. "There's a pipeline of communication already in place," he said.
Witt said she knows the importance of working with other agencies and said community engagement will be a constant part of her job. The sheriff-elect said she does not shy away from conflict.
"You have to get out and talk to people to hear their experiences, good or bad," Witt said. "It's the right thing to do."
She said she is also focused on recruitment and retention, issues that face nearly every law enforcement agency in the state. From residents to other agencies, the demands on the Sheriff's Office are higher than ever, Witt said.
Minneapolis and other cities are increasingly relying on Hennepin County deputies to bolster day-to-day policing. Several metro cities are experiencing a hollowing out of their police ranks amid an unprecedented wave of retirements, resignations and departures of officers on medical leave after the police murder of George Floyd in 2020 and the riots that ensued.
"Staffing shortages are creating a lot of overtime for us," Witt said. "I want our staff to be as healthy as possible, mentally and physically. We have to be at optimum numbers."
Hutchinson previously asked the County Board for 30 additional sworn deputies, noting current staffing levels of licensed deputies are lower than they were a decade ago.
Witt said she plans to build on successes in the county, including its aggressive approach to attacking the ongoing opioid epidemic.
Last week, county officials issued an alert after a rash of fentanyl overdoses. The Sheriff's Office offers opioid treatment programs in jail and classes on Narcan, a medication which can reverse an overdose.
Witt said she never considered a career in law enforcement until she toured the Hennepin County jail, a facility she would later oversee. Told the jail needed to hire more women of color, she said, she decided to become a detention officer.
"I started to have interactions with law enforcement and got to know the people behind the badge," said Witt, adding that as a young woman she had a starkly negative impression of police and law enforcement. "I started to realize it wasn't an accident that I ended up in law enforcement. I have compassion for this profession and the community. I have that perfect balance."
Witt said there is no reason the public or recruits shouldn't have a better understanding of what the Sheriff's Office does. She plans for the agency to have a more robust presence on social media and make sure it is transparent, whether the news is positive or negative.
How will she measure success? Witt said she wants the agency to be known as one of the top five places people want to work in Minnesota.
"You can't save everyone and every community, but it won't be because I didn't do my best all the time," Witt said. "When people are telling me they see a difference, that's success."