The county’s top law and public safety officials will both face challengers this year as they seek re-election to new terms in November.
Candidates for Hennepin County attorney include incumbent Mike Freeman, who is seeking a sixth term, and his DFL-endorsed challenger, Mark Haase, an attorney working in government relations for a state agency. Nearing the end of his third term, Sheriff Rich Stanek, too, has a DFL-endorsed challenger, Metro Transit Police Sgt. Dave Hutch, and will also face Joseph Banks, a bond agent and former chief of the Upper Sioux Tribal Police and Morton Police departments, in November.
Candidates for both offices are being asked to respond to a similar set of issues, including the county’s handling of the opioid epidemic and the relationship between public safety officials and the public. Debate among the candidates for sheriff has also touched on the department’s relationship with Immigration and Customs Enforcement and the management of the county jail.
The filing period for both offices remains open through June 5.
A bail bond agent and former police officer, Joseph Banks said he would lead the department into a closer relationship with the community it serves if elected Hennepin County sheriff.
“When it’s all said and done, we work for the community,” Banks said, pledging to improve communications and make the department’s work more transparent. A youth football coach who said he prioritizes work in the community, Banks would if elected sheriff still make time to volunteer and represent the department at public safety meetings, which he described as “important avenues of communication.”
“My whole platform is about community and law enforcement working together,” he said.
Banks said he has worked in law enforcement for more than two decades, and during that time served as chief of the City of Morton and Upper Sioux police departments. He said his run for sheriff was motivated in part by a desire to bring clarity to the use-of-force investigations that follow officer-involved shootings, and he would seek a role for the sheriff’s department when those incidents occur in Hennepin County. He said the department “should have been more of a buffer” when the 2015 Jamar Clark shooting sparked protests against Minneapolis police.
Banks said he would also work to improve the department’s relationship with the immigrant community. That would include making certain undocumented immigrants booked into the Hennepin County Jail understand their rights with regard to Immigrations and Customs Enforcement.
Hutch’s legal last name is Hutchinson, but he intends to appear on the ballot as Hutch. He is a Metro Transit Police sergeant with 15 years of law enforcement experience and a leader on the department’s North Side Community Engagement Team.
Hutch said he pioneered that community-oriented policing and engagement effort, which aims to build trust between the department and North Side residents, with a former partner who is still on the beat. If elected sheriff, he would shift deputies into roles where they have more contact with community members and can better support local police departments.
Under Stanek, he said, the department is “stuck in ’90s-era policing,” with deputies isolated from the public in their patrol vehicles. Hutch promotes a philosophy of “21st century law enforcement” that is more transparent, approachable and fair.
“People have said it a million times, but if you and I are better, the community is better,” he said. “If the community is better, we’re better.”
The culture change envisioned by Hutch would involve re-evaluating how the department hires new deputies. He said he would shift the emphasis in interviews to testing the applicants’ emotional intelligence and ability to maintain their composure under stress.
Hutch said he would staff the county jail with corrections officers, cutting the cost of overtime hours paid to licensed deputies and also giving those deputies more time in the community. He would also seek ways for the department to intervene in the cycle of opioid abuse.
“As soon as they get arrested, we get them treatment as quick as we can,” he said.
Rich Stanek (incumbent)
A former Minneapolis police officer, state legislator from Maple Grove and commissioner of the Department of Public Safety under Gov. Tim Pawlenty, Rich Stanek was elected sheriff in 2006 and is seeking a third term in office.
Stanek said he was first motivated to run by a surge in violent crime, noting a 36 percent decrease in violent crime countywide during his time in office. Statewide crime rates also hit a 50-year low in 2017, according to the Bureau of Criminal Apprehension.
Today, the opioid crisis is a significant challenge for the department, and Stanek noted he was the first public safety official in the state to give his deputies narcan, which can reverse the effects of an overdose, and fought to get it in the hands of officers statewide.
Although he has faced criticism from some quarters over his department’s relationship with Immigration and Customs Enforcement — whose agents routinely pick up undocumented immigrants as they are being released from jail — Stanek said he is required under state law to ask where people are born when they enter the jail, adding that the information is shared with ICE only indirectly after being passed from state to federal agencies. County deputies don’t enforce federal immigration law, he said, but the department does comply with ICE requests to be notified when certain individuals are released from jail.
Stanek said the department is a national leader in 21st-century policing practices, noting that Department of Justice officials visited in April to highlight local community engagement efforts. He has also used his position to highlight the jail population’s high rates of mental illness and state agencies’ failures to get those inmates treatment.
Mike Freeman (incumbent)
Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman has often been the focus, during his fifth term in office, of a community-wide debate over police-involved shootings.
After a grand jury did not find probable cause to charge police for the 2013 death of Terrance Franklin, Freeman decided to end their use in police shootings, citing a lack of transparency and accountability. He then didn’t find cause to charge officers in the 2015 shooting death of Jamar Clark, afterwards releasing dozens of written documents, videos and photos so that the public could also review the evidence in the case. More recently, he used a grand jury to compel officer testimony before deciding to charge a Minneapolis police officer with the murder last summer of Justine Damond, who was shot after calling 911.
“I think today people demand more accountability and more transparency, and I gave it to them,” he said.
Freeman said he is particularly proud of efforts to keep young people charged with minor crimes out of the system, reducing the average population of the juvenile detention center more than 50 percent. He said just 3 percent of the office’s attorneys were people of color when he started; it’s now 22 percent.
“I’ll match that with any prosecutor’s staff in the country,” he said.
In response to the opioid epidemic, Freeman has focused his office on prosecuting “big-time dealers” while diverting those accused of lower-level crimes into drug court. He has also joined other Minnesota county attorneys in a class-action suit against drug manufacturers and distributors.
In between running his own family law practice and finding a job in state government, Mark Haase worked for the Minnesota Council on Crime and Justice, a since-shuttered nonprofit where he served as vice president, and helped to launch the Minnesota Second Chance Coalition — experiences that motivated to run for Hennepin County attorney. As an advocate, he focused on policies to help those with criminal records find jobs and housing and regain the right to vote.
“Making sure people are held accountable is a very important part of the job, and I completely believe in that, but I think there’s a balance between accountability and mercy and second chances,” he said, adding that the county is over-incarcerating, and it’s not working.
Haase said he’s running because the criminal justice system still punishes people for poverty, mental illness, drug addiction and homelessness while contributing to racial disparities.
“An African-American in Hennepin County is 11 times more likely to be arrested for a marijuana offense than a white person, even though the use is even between races,” he said, adding that it was time “to basically get out of that business in prosecution and law enforcement.”
While he agrees with incumbent Mike Freeman’s shift away from the use of grand juries in police-involved shootings, Haase would also create an independent review panel made up of community experts. It would give a second opinion on cases involving officers, he said.
Haase would advocate for the elimination of cash bail, explaining, “I do not think freedom should depend on how much money you have.”