Giving citizens more say on who polices them
Suwana Kirkland wants Hennepin County residents to know that as their sheriff she’ll be sure to empower them to have a hand in public safety decisions on the front end of the process, not just when tragedy strikes.
The 17-year veteran law enforcement officer and mother of five spoke to the MSR to discuss her campaign for the Hennepin County Sheriff’s Office and what she plans to do if elected to a seat that’s drawn public scrutiny over the past few years.
After moving to Minnesota in 1999 with her three children, Kirkland sought out a career that would provide for her family while fulfilling her desire to serve the community. She found her calling in law enforcement, which led her to join the Minnetonka Police Department as the first Person of Color and Black woman to join the agency.
Kirkland’s career has been defined by a list of firsts. Most recently she’s been hired as the first Black woman to lead Dakota County Corrections where she oversees 200 employees and a $40 million budget dedicated to providing services that help juvenile and adult offenders develop social skills and competencies—criminal justice with a more rehabilitative focus.
MSR: What inspired you to pursue a career in law enforcement?
SK: I started taking classes at MCTC… In these classes there were these kids who would come in every day and they were all jazzed up about their skills program, this academy. I started having conversations with them and wanted to know more about it. “You guys seem so happy and so dedicated. Talk to me about it.”
I’ve always had a servant’s heart. I’ve always wanted to do things for people in a way that had the biggest impact and influence. I have always given more of myself to whatever it is I’ve done in life. This seemed like this could be it. So I switched up the very next semester to the law enforcement criminal justice program.
MSR: What is your day-to-day like in your current role and how has it helped you reimagine the criminal justice system?
SK: I am the director of Dakota County Community Corrections. I make decisions on a day-to-day basis that are up to me to transform and motivate change for progress in a system that we know needs it. So not only am I invited to the table, I sit at the head of the table and I have a direct impact and influence on the work that we do for the success of those in the system.
My staff have a direct impact on the lives of people where we want them to see a better day. They’ve been given a better opportunity and take advantage of all of the resources all of the systems help, everything it is that we have to offer to make certain that they are successful. That they come out better than when they came in. That’s our responsibility. I take that extremely seriously.
MSR: What type of work have you done this past year to investigate ways of improving the correctional system?
SK: We’re always looking at ways that the profession looks like the communities we’re serving. To create pathways and journeys for people of color to get involved to earn degrees, to plant the seed in those who have a heart of service. It is to open up those pathways for women and people of color.
It’s been the honor and privilege to bring in more vendors and more contractors and more systems that then look like the clients and the people that we’re serving. It’s bringing in barbers, it’s bringing in artists that can create murals that remind that we have in custody about their environment. It’s the opportunity to bring in more clinicians of color.
I’ve had the opportunity to do that. On the adult side, it is being more involved in reforming intensive supervised release. It’s going away from a heavy surveillance model to where we’re catching people doing wrong and going to a preventive intervention model where we’re intervening early on when we’re seeing those signs or triggers that might land people back in custody.
MSR: What are your goals if elected to this role?
SK: Some of the things that I’d like to do or bring awareness to is early intervention and prevention for youth. Let’s get to the bottom of why they are acting the way that they are. What is it? What is about the carjackings? What is it about the violence? Are they acting out in a way because of trauma?
Why have all of the facilities around us closed down for them, the Hennepin County homeschool, Boys Totem Town, Harbor Shelter in Dakota County. Where are these kids going? There are not enough foster homes in the state, so what alternative placements do we have for children other than a fast track to incarceration?
How do we partner with the Best Buys, the Targets, all of these places that have all of the resources, in order for us to bring kids together? How do we partner with the Ys, Planet Fitness? We have to occupy their time.
MSR: What would be your priorities during your first term as sheriff?
SK: Public safety. Bringing public safety partners together, and I mean all of the public safety partners, because right now everyone is blaming this public safety crisis on each other and no one is working together.
I have had the ability in my 17 years to bring people together to talk about what it is that we can do and should be doing together. It’s looking at strategies other states, other agencies, other sheriff’s offices [have used] who have relied on best practices and have gotten it right.
MSR: What does accountability look like to you?
SK: For me, accountability and transparency are one and the same. It can’t be separated. It should not be separated. It’s holding myself, my deputies, and my agents to the same standards as would the community. Same standards.
It is not just saying that but it is demonstrating that from the top on down and from the bottom on up. That everyone, regardless of your position, you are held accountable for your actions and behaviors.
MSR: What place do the police have in the community, and what are your thoughts on the calls to defund the police?
SK: It’s a noble profession. If you allow it to be. It’s honorable. If you allow it to be. There are thousands in this state that wear the uniform and the badge that take that oath of office and do the work to the best of their ability every single day. I have outright said I have never been for abolishing the police, defunding of the police, or any sort of talk in that way. Never.
But what I am for is law enforcement really being given the opportunity to demonstrate and show that we can be better. That we have been better. That we can do better. But that takes resources.
And that takes, yes, more officers on the force. Right now we are being depleted left and right but still have a great majority still here doing this work day in and day out, because it is honorable, because it is respectable, and because they have taken the oath.
I do believe we have to invest more resources into community programs that engage with public safety leaders and officers in this state. There has to be that reallocation of funds in order to make the transparency and the bond even stronger between community and public safety.
I believe in bringing in non-law enforcement personnel like social services, like nonprofits, to help with a lot of the complex issues that law enforcement are facing. Which, to be honest, we shouldn’t be going to calls on.
MSR: Are you looking into recruitment options from the community directly?
SK: That’s one of the things that I’m most proud of with the work that I’ve done at Ramsey County and Dakota County, is that I’ve created programs and pathways and opportunities to bring on community members where they have direct say and expression of who they want to be policing them.
What do they feel about this person being promoted? It’s creating opportunities for people in the community to experience what it’s like to be a law enforcement officer. Not just bringing them in when we have an incident that’s national news, but in the everyday operations of the office.
Interview edited for brevity.
Abdi Mohamed is a contributing writer at the MN Spokesman-Recorder. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.