It’s late on a Friday night in downtown St. Paul, and Ramsey County Sheriff Bob Fletcher is holding forth on chicken wings, Roy Wilkins Auditorium and the origins of the bar he’s watching from a parked squad.
Welcome to Fletcher’s Facebook livestream where, since August, the sheriff and part-time crime analyst Pat Scott have gone out most Friday nights, a video camera fixed to their squad’s dashboard to livestream on Facebook whatever passes in front of them. It’s a popular fix for Fletcher’s fans, hundreds of whom tune in each week to hear his thoughts and watch some occasional police work.
But the show has rankled members of the Ramsey County Board. A host of budget problems last year that required county intervention, coupled with allegations of racism this year from eight Black or brown correctional officers, have spurred commissioners to plan a public discussion about the Sheriff’s Office. They want to see if residents feel the department needs improvement on issues of trust, transparency and accountability, Board Chairwoman Toni Carter said.
“The show,” she added, “is not what we’re looking for.”
Fletcher, who did not respond to a request for comment on this story, has had a testy relationship with the board since he was elected in 2018 to his second go-round as sheriff.
After months of disputes last year, the county covered his $950,000 budget overrun. Fletcher angered then-Board Chairman Jim McDonough when he rehired two employees the county had fired for misconduct; after arbitration, it cost the county nearly $100,000 to terminate the men.
Then Fletcher raised eyebrows when it was revealed that he and several of his top-ranked officers take a law enforcement pension on top of their salaries. That’s legal, but in at least two cases Sheriff’s Office managers have resigned only to be hired back once they had been gone long enough to trigger their pensions.
Courting controversy is nothing new for Fletcher, one of the longest-serving elected leaders in Ramsey County. Since he was first elected to the St. Paul City Council in the 1980s as a 26-year-old St. Paul police officer, Fletcher has cultivated a reputation as a street-smart politician with a long memory of who’s supported him and who hasn’t.
He was at the center of a $750,000 payout that Ramsey County made during his first run as sheriff from 1995 to 2010, when two members of the Sheriff’s Office alleged they were victims of retaliation for challenging him in the 2002 election. In 2009, a review of the Metro Gang Strike Force that Fletcher helped create found the unit was so rife with abuse that the state shut it down.
Fletcher’s Facebook show is a mix of mostly low-level crime interspersed with random conversations. On some nights, it’s about monitoring bars in case a fight breaks out; on others, it’s following up on a dispatcher’s reports of an erratic driver. Actual busts are rare, since in St. Paul the Sheriff’s Office serves only as a backup to police, but viewers can expect commentary by Fletcher on everything from pizza toppings to former Mayor George Latimer.
“We don’t mind if people know who we are,” Fletcher tells a young woman in one episode who had approached his squad car and asked if they were undercover. Followers chime in online, making real-time comments that scroll alongside the video. Each episode typically generates thousands of views, according to Facebook.
Fletcher’s fans thank him for the entertainment. That bothers Caty Royce, co-director of the Frogtown Neighborhood Association.
“It’s wrong, and I do think it’s dangerous,” she said of the show. “It puts him in a place where he needs to be entertaining rather than doing his job. There’s nothing about transparency here.”
Royce said she wondered why the sheriff patrols St. Paul on the show, since his department isn’t the primary law enforcement agency in the city. “He’s getting paid full salary to drive around and basically throw hot dogs to a couple of kids,” she said.
The show’s premise affords plenty of time for Fletcher to opine about his job. In a recent episode he told viewers that the Ramsey County Charter Commission would soon discuss making his job appointed rather than elected, enabling the County Board to choose a new sheriff.
Fletcher shared the charter commission’s e-mail address with viewers in case they wanted to make their feelings known. Send them an e-mail before noon on Monday to get your comments in on time, he said.
The obvious pitch for support bothered Charter Commission Member Bethany Winkels, who said Monday at the commission’s meeting that Fletcher had misled people.
“He spun the truth as to what this conversation was, so as to elicit responses,” she said. Commission members were going to simply talk about their roles and not take any action, she said.
Charter Commission Chairman Joe Murphy, whom Fletcher defeated in 2014 for a seat on the Vadnais Heights City Council, said it might be two years before the public can vote on whether the sheriff should be appointed. Murphy said that Fletcher’s budget and management habits make the case for that change.
“We have one department head who’s elected and he blew his budget up by $2.5 million,” said Murphy, referring to the 2019 spending problems that led County Manager Ryan O’Connor to put spending restrictions on the Sheriff’s Office. “If we could hire a professional to run our department, it’s not going to have these issues.”
In another recent episode of the show, Fletcher talked about how city council members generally should go about hiring a police chief.
“They don’t know much about what’s really going on [in] the street because they’re not out there driving around every night seeing it,” he said. “So that’s why they need to trust their police chiefs and they need to trust the people they’re putting into those positions.”
“Just remember,” he said, “there’s no substitute for experience.”
County Commissioner Nicole Joy Frethem said that Fletcher’s show, no matter how popular, doesn’t address concerns she has about budget management and racial equity in his department. Flare-up from the recent discrimination charges against the Ramsey County jail, plus the fallout from the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis, should push the county to have a broad public discussion, she said.
“Can we have less drama in government, and more logic and common sense and cooler heads and a government that works for people?” she said. “And maybe a little less for politicians and showmanship. That’s where I’m at with all of this.”