Letters with the names of the state's sheriffs at the top were sent to 180,000 Minnesotans asking for donations to a private nonprofit that represents the group, and offering decals in exchange for support.
The letters from the Minnesota Sheriffs' Association include large text at the top, reading, "From SHERIFF," followed by the sheriff's name and the county. They were mailed out in all 87 counties, but not all sheriffs were aware their name would be used in this way before the solicitations were sent.
"They do a lot of great things. We support that mission. But no, I had no idea about this," Hennepin County Sheriff Dawanna Witt said last week, following questions from the Star Tribune about the letters.
The letters say that funding goes toward important training for sheriff's offices such as de-escalation techniques and mental health education. Donations also go to civic programs, including scholarships for law enforcement students, and the National Sheriffs' Association Triad program that aims to reduce crime against the elderly, according to the letter.
Below the list of training sessions and programs, the letter lists items donors will receive, including a membership card that fits in a wallet and association decal stickers for the home, vehicle or office.
Ramsey County Sheriff Bob Fletcher said similar solicitation letters have been sent for 30 years.
While sheriffs interviewed said they support the solicitations, several law and politics professors said they think the letters are unethical or deceptive, and that the letters could make recipients think a payment will lead to better treatment from police.
"I think it's easily across the line. I mean, it's unethical," said Larry Jacobs, politics professor at the University of Minnesota.
The association's new executive director, James Stuart, rejected those concerns. He said it's an important fundraising tool for the nonprofit that funds needed training and is a legitimate process used elsewhere.
"The short answer is no, there is certainly nothing that would be unethical, or else we wouldn't do it," said Stuart, a former Anoka County sheriff.
The solicitation is mailed each spring by a third-party vendor that assists with the association's fundraising and that of other nonprofits nationwide, Stuart said.
Olmsted County Sheriff Kevin Torgerson, who has worked for the Sheriff's Office since 1986, said the process has been around as long as he can remember.
Jacobs and others said while the letter does not have any mention of a quid pro quo, they think the presence of a support sticker could affect how a law officer reacts when considering whether to give a parking or traffic ticket.
"It's unstated, but you're offering a decal, and it's reasonable to expect that you might think, 'Oh, I'll be treated more fairly,' or 'They'll turn a blind eye to me if they see I've given to the Sheriffs' Association,' " Jacobs said.
Matt Bostrom, a former Ramsey County sheriff, said that while sending the letter is legal, he's heard concerns from recipients, including that the personal tone makes it appear as if the sheriff is directly appealing for a donation.
"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?'" he said. "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."
Bostrom, who was sheriff from 2011 to 2017, said he thinks the Sheriffs' Association emblem could also mislead recipients at first glance to think it's their respective sheriff's office logo.
"How would you know that's not the Hennepin County emblem?" he said.
David Schultz, a professor of legal studies and political science at Hamline University, had a similar reaction, and said in an email he thinks it is "borderline solicitation of a bribe."
"This is in effect the sheriff soliciting a gift, or the public feeling like they have to give a gift, in order to get service," Schultz said.
Witt pushed back against the ethics concerns, noting that none of the sheriff's offices receive the actual funds raised from the letters. Witt said that while she understands people could read something into the letter, no deputy will respond differently if someone has a pro-association decal.
"As a person who has been an active member of the Minnesota Sheriffs' Association as a deputy, as a major, as all my ranks, I know all the good that this program brings," Witt said. "With that, our deputies are professional, and no bumper stickers will affect what they do to follow the law."
The association, a 501(c)(3), reported just over $1.5 million in gifts, grants, contributions and membership fees in its 2022 990 form. The report also shows former executive director Bill Hutton was paid nearly $118,000 in 2022.
Torgerson said he finds nothing wrong with the letter.
"It clearly states what it's for, and there's nothing in there that should require someone to think that they're going to get better or lesser service," he said.
Fletcher said he doesn't see an issue with the association offering decals, noting that people may show support for various groups on their cars.
"We always appreciate when someone is supportive of law enforcement; it's never been more important than it is today," he said.
Across the country, similar methods are used by law enforcement nonprofits. Stuart, who took over as association director in March, said he's received questions from sheriffs making sure the letters weren't spam but nothing about their propriety.
"Our state has a very extensive, and expensive, list of required training in order to maintain the peace officer licensing," Stuart said.
Meryl Chertoff, an adjunct professor of law at Georgetown University and an expert in state legislation, said the solicitations are "at the very least, bad judgment" on behalf of the association and that it creates the appearance of impropriety.
Chertoff said she has seen similar solicitation techniques used by police benevolent associations. She said there have been occasions where someone receives a police association membership card and uses it to get out of a ticket.
"Most police officers will look at the card and very politely ignore it. At the margin, occasionally, it will have an impact, and an officer will turn a blind eye and let somebody go," Chertoff said.
She noted there are "very few" places in the United States that have laws forbidding that kind of preferential treatment. Although giving out support stickers and cards may be common, Chertoff said it "accentuates" a perception that certain groups are treated differently by law enforcement.
"From an optical perspective, it's not a good idea," she said.
Stuart said he also was surprised years ago when he was a sheriff and didn't realize his name was on a letter. He said there have been efforts to better notify sheriffs before the letters go out.
Stuart said he is reviewing the solicitation process.
"I don't have a good answer for what it's going to look like, but we'll probably make some changes in the future," he said.