A challenge to Stanek’s incumbency in the struggle for race equity


This piece is part of Twin Cities Daily Planet’s series covering the 2018 elections season. Every year we’re moving towards a possibility of a more diverse legislature. And with it, we hope comes increased opportunities for communities historically shut out of political processes and power to imagine and enact policies to create a Minnesota that benefits all its constituents.

Robert Pilot, an educator and member of the Ho-Chunk Nation, said he and many other people in the Native American community started talking about the need to replace current Hennepin County Sheriff Rich Stanek in Oct. 2016, after Stanek sent equipment and 30 deputies to Standing Rock in North Dakota. The deputies were filmed using batons and tear gas on water protectors who were trying to block Energy Transfer Partners, Enbridge, Phillips 66 and Marathon Petroleum from constructing an underground oil pipeline that the Cheyenne River Sioux and Standing Rock Sioux tribes argued violated treaty rights, disrupted sacred sites and threatened contamination of water and land from oil spills.

Since state regulators approved the construction of the Enbridge Line 3 tar sands pipeline in northern Minnesota earlier this year, over the opposition of at least four Ojibwe bands and many environmental organizations, Pilot said it’s especially important to have a sheriff who won’t crack down on peaceful water protectors with heavily armed law enforcement officers.

Stanek’s challenger, Metro Transit Police Sergeant Dave “Hutch” Hutchinson pledged to the environmental group MN350 Action, “I will never deploy Hennepin County sheriff’s deputies to engage opponents of this project. The Hennepin County Sheriff’s Office is here to protect people, not large companies.” His stance won him the endorsement of MN350 Action.

Hutch’s statement about keeping people safe seems to match with what he says about community members with mental illness who have contact with law enforcement. He says one big reason he’s running to unseat longtime Hennepin County Sheriff Rich Stanek is that he wants to improve the way the Hennepin county sheriff’s office deals with mental health issues.

Hutchinson, who’s listed as “Dave Hutch” on the ballot, currently supervises a Peer Support Program with the Metro Transit Police to help officers cope with the stresses of the job and remove stigma around cops admitting they sometimes struggle with mental health issues. Hutchinson told the Daily Planet that he believes that when cops are “healthy and happy, they’re going to treat people better.” Hutchinson also provides Crisis Intervention Training, commonly known as CIT, for law enforcement agencies statewide. The training includes 40 hours of coursework on how to recognize mental illness symptoms and de-escalate situations in which people are suicidal or experiencing severe disorientation or stress.

“[It’s very important to] just befriend [the person experiencing a mental health problem] and let them know you’re a human being,” noted Hutchinson.

Stanek told the Daily Planet that all his deputies are required to complete Crisis Intervention Training and that he also works with the legislature to shape public policy on how law enforcement and mental health issues intersect.

Hutch said the conventional policing model is for officers to prioritize gaining control of a situation quickly, but CIT encourages officers to “slow everything down and hit the pause button” to make a more compassionate, empathetic, even vulnerable connection with people in order to help “talk them down.”

Hutchinson said if elected as sheriff, he’d also like to go beyond CIT and peer support in the sheriff’s office and start a mental health co-responder program.

In Minnesota, mental health co-responders are typically licensed social workers with at least a master’s degree who are embedded in law enforcement departments. It’s an approach that Kathy Czech, a retired nurse, and her brother Bill Czech, an electrician, have been pushing Minnesota police departments to adapt for over three years. The Czechs are not co-responders, but they’ve researched the efficacy of co-responder programs and founded a Twin Cities-based community organization, Safety Triage and Mental Health Providers, to promote the model’s benefits.

In 2015 Duluth was the first Minnesota city to implement a co-responder program; the St. Paul police added an embedded licensed social worker to their mental health unit in 2018. The Minneapolis police department also has a co-responder pilot program. The Hennepin County Sheriff’s Office currently does not.

Kathy Czech said co-responders can use their clinical training during law enforcement calls to “make a tentative diagnosis and do an appropriate treatment plan.” Co-responders can also determine whether a person is a danger to themselves or others.

The VA-based Treatment Advocacy Center estimates that 25 to 50 percent of people shot by U.S. police are suffering from mental illness. Kathy Czech says co-responders can save lives and tax dollars. A study of a co-responder program in Overland Park, KS found that when co-responders accompanied police, mental health calls were roughly 15 to 16 times less likely to result in a trip to the ER and 4 to 5 times less likely to result in an arrest.

Hennepin County Sheriff Rich Stanek has spoken out this year about the fact that the state does not have enough space in psychiatric hospitals to promptly accommodate court-ordered psychiatric hospital admissions. As a result, people suffering with severe mental illness are facing long jail stays, even in some cases after their charges have been dropped, because of lack of space for them in state psychiatric facilities. Stanek has pressed Gov. Dayton and other high-ranking county and state officials to find solutions.

According to Bill and Kathy Czech, Stanek hasn’t responded to their attempts to tell him about the co-responder model, even though the Czechs insist it’s a cost-effective, proactive way to reduce the number of mentally ill people in jails.

Bill Czech recalled approaching Stanek to talk about co-responders while they were both attending a program on mental health issues and law enforcement at the University of Minnesota’s Robina Institute of Criminal Law and Justice.

“It wasn’t just that he wasn’t receptive,” said Czech; according to Czech, Stanek was “aloof, dismissive, and quite frankly, rude.” Czech continued, “I was terribly disappointed by that.”

Stanek said, “I don’t recall any conversation like that.” He added, “I’m sorry if he feels that way.”

Stanek told the Daily Planet that he’s satisfied with the current model of his office partnering with the county health department’s Community Outreach for Psychiatric Emergencies mobile unit, otherwise known as COPE. COPE is a separate entity from the sheriff’s department and other law enforcement agencies.

“That’s the model the county has set up and it’s been in place long before the co-responder embedded” model, Stanek said.

Noah McCourt, a disability rights activist who focuses on law enforcement interactions with children and youth with autism, said he sees Hutchinson’s challenge to Stanek as an opportunity to improve the way the Hennepin County Sheriff’s Department treats people with mental illness and people on the autism spectrum.

McCourt also appreciates that Hutchinson would be Hennepin County’s first openly gay sheriff. In an interview with Pacific Standard, Hutchinson, who has been married to his husband Justin for almost three years, said, “I understand what it’s like to be not in the majority.”

Metro Transit has not responded to requests for records of any public complaints that may have been brought against Hutchinson as a Metro Transit officer. When asked about his record, Hutchinson said that he has never had a sustained complaint against him that resulted in him being disciplined. He has received a chief’s commendation and certificates of appreciation.

Noah McCourt said, “Every single time there’s been an altercation with law enforcement [across the U.S.] … people always jump to training,” said McCourt. “But at the end of the day, … you can’t train for empathy. So it’s very important when you’re looking at candidates … that we’re looking at people who have empathy.”

Hutchinson’s stance on immigration

At a Sept. 23 candidates’ forum at New Creation Church in North Minneapolis, which Rich Stanek did not attend, Hutchinson said, “We’re not going to deal with ICE, because we have an obligation to our tax-paying people, and our people who live, visit and work in Hennepin County, to make sure they’re safe.”

Hutchinson said he wants to go after immigrants or anyone else who commits violent crimes, but he pointed out that statistically, immigrants are much less likely to commit crimes than people born in the U.S.

Immigrants, Hutchinson has insisted in multiple interviews and public forums, are important, welcomed contributors to Hennepin County’s cultural and economic vitality.

While the sheriff’s office cannot directly initiate a deportation process, city or county law enforcement – and the county jail – may be a first contact for people who end up being targeted for deportation. Many in our community live in fear of Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s power and the difficulty of navigating the system. Catalina Morales, who works with immigrant communities with the interfaith group Faith in Minnesota, said, “What people don’t understand is that Immigration uses any tactic to get people deported. So they come in and they talk to people in a private room, and no one’s witnessing what’s happening in that room.”

Morales said she’s worked with families who have paid fines, fees and bails to get loved ones released, but when they arrive to pick them up, their family members have vanished.

“And there’s no explanation of where they went, there’s no explanation of who took them,” said Morales. When federal agents take people to the ICE facility at Fort Snelling, she said, detainees don’t show up in the system immediately, so even if a person is there, “that doesn’t mean you’re going to find out right away.”

Many family members of people detained by ICE may also be undocumented. “If you don’t have people that can go and investigate for you,” Morales said, “you’re not going to find out where your family member is.”

Hutchinson’s employer Metro Transit hasn’t been immune from criticism over its treatment of immigrants, at least in one incident caught on a bystander’s cellphone video. On May 14, 2017, Metro Transit officer Andy Lamers asked a light-rail rider named Ariel Vences-Lopez, “Are you here illegally?”– a question that Metro Transit Police Chief John Harrington later insisted Metro Transit did not train or empower him to ask.

Hennepin County Sheriff’s Office booked Vences-Lopez into the county jail for fare evasion. A 2015 report compiled by Metro Transit showed major racial disparities in Metro Transit Police’s rates of arrests and citations; with the numbers adjusted to reflect transit rider demographics, Native Americans had almost 14 arrests and citations per 100,000 rides, black riders had 12 arrests and citations per 100,000 rides, and white people had 2 arrests and citations per 100,000 rides. The report did not include statistics on Latino riders.

Shortly after his arrest, Vences-Lopez was taken before a federal immigration judge, who ordered him to be deported. Metro Transit Chief John Harrington released a statement on May 27 that Metro Transit didn’t mention Vences-Lopez’s immigration status in their reports and did not contact ICE about him.

Lamers resigned from Metro Transit on May 27 but was paid a $50,000 settlement. Immigration judge Ryan Wood ordered Vences-Lopez released from ICE detention in July 2017 and postponed his case.

Hutchinson told the Daily Planet that he opposes any local law officer asking a community member about their citizenship status, but that he’s limited in what he can say about a situation involving his current employer. He emphasized that he was not personally involved in the incident.

Immigrant advocates think new sheriff could reduce harms

The GOP-recommended Stanek, a former Republican state legislator from Maple Grove, has won with healthy margins in previous elections, despite the fact that Hennepin County voters lean blue overall. In 2014, Stanek won 67.6 percent of votes cast in the sheriff’s race, and this included a majority of Minneapolis voters.

Giselda Gutierrez, an organizer with the Minnesota Immigrant Rights Action Committee, said that no matter who wins this year, real change can only come from people continuing to organize. But she said that if enough people vote for Hutchinson, it would show that people in Hennepin County don’t endorse what she and others say is Stanek’s cooperation with ICE. She thinks that could embolden other politicians to take stronger action to protect immigrants.

Gutierrez also said that if Hutchinson wins, the fact that he has pledged to not cooperate with ICE would help community members push him to stick to his campaign promises later on.

Catalina Morales of Faith in Minnesota said having a new sheriff won’t completely stop deportations in Hennepin County, but it could mitigate some of the pain that U.S. immigration policies are causing for families and communities.

Holding the sheriff accountable

On Oct. 18, 2018, several community organizations co-sponsored what was planned as a debate between the two Hennepin County Sheriff candidates. Only Hutchinson showed up, so the event became a one-on-one interview between Hutchinson and moderator Nekima Levy Armstrong. Levy Armstrong, an activist and former candidate for mayor of Minneapolis, pressed Hutchinson to go beyond talking points on racial equity issues.

Levy Armstrong asked Hutchinson what he would do to address racial disparities in the Hennepin County criminal justice system.

Hutchinson responded that he would like to employ more officers of color.

Levy Armstrong told him that when she was arrested in 2015 after a protest and taken to the Hennepin County Jail, she was surrounded by several male deputies after she asked a question about a jail policy. Most of the deputies were white, she said, but one was black.

“I did not see a difference in terms of his treatment of me simply because he was a black man,” commented Levy Armstrong.

How, she asked Hutchinson, would he confront systemic problems with policing culture that influence all officers, no matter what their race?

Hutchinson said he’d work with associations for officers of color to help them navigate their identities as cops and as members of communities of color. He also called for better training and more conversation with diverse communities.

Levy Armstrong asked if Hutchinson would commit to listening to community suggestions about how to eliminate racial inequities in the sheriff’s office and the county jail. Hutchinson said yes.

“As a sheriff,” he said, he’d report “to the people.”

Later that night, Levy Armstrong wrote in a public Facebook post that she considered Hutchinson the best person for the job. “I grilled him,” she wrote, “and he answered my questions honestly and with humility.”

Reckoning with our choices for policing

Hutchinson is the son of a police officer, and he often speaks about his belief that most officers truly do want to serve others. The intent of those with authority are one thing, but the reality of policing – past  – and present and its disparate impacts are another.

“You may have the best intentions,” Molly Glasgow, a core member of MPD150, a multidisciplinary project whose members have spent the last few years researching the 150-year history of the Minneapolis Police Department, said, “and you are still in a system that is not designed to protect indigenous people, people of color, queer people, immigrants and poor people.”

MPD150 is preparing a report and art exhibit to share their findings. The project’s aim is to provide what its creators call a “performance review” of the Minneapolis Police Department’s “systematic and unrelenting abuse of communities,” put modern policing in historical context, and spark conversations about alternatives to policing.

Glasgow said she has known individual officers who work hard to be compassionate and fair. But she believes they are still limited in how much good they can do, because policing was designed from its beginnings to maintain oppressive power structures. In the southern states, policing began as slave patrols; in the north, town watches often enforced curfews for Native people and black people. As American cities grew and became industrialized, police helped block organizing that was often led by immigrants.

Glasgow pointed out that Hutchinson would also be “another white man in power, and we can’t keep having the same faces in power” if we want true, systemic change. But she also said that for her, the choice between a candidate whom she says helps ICE catch and detain undocumented immigrants and a candidate who’s running on a pledge not to cooperate with ICE is clear.

“Police abolition is not something that’s going to happen tomorrow,” said Glasgow. “It’s something that’s going to happen in our tomorrows. But until we get there, we have to continue to make the system better. We have to continue to make the system be accountable to people, and we have to continue to protect each other in all the ways that we can, which means still engaging with the system until we can survive without it. And so I completely support that, and anything that helps protect families from deportation is something that I personally would support.”

For information about what’s on your ballot in the county races, visit the Twin Cities Daily Planet Voter Guide, #TheBallotMSP.

Corrections: The earlier version of this article implied that the Hennepin County Sheriff’s Office does not require its deputies to take Crisis Intervention Training, but according to Sheriff Rich Stanek, it does. The earlier version also stated that Stanek did not respond to requests for an interview and comment; he did respond after multiple requests and provided an interview, parts of which are now included in this version.