In early February, Hennepin County Sheriff David Hutchinson announced he would not seek re-election in November, presumably due to the fallout from his DWI conviction last December. Waiting in the wings are four local candidates, including Major Dawanna Witt, who announced her candidacy on the heels of Hutchinson’s news.
Major Witt has deep roots within the county, growing up and attending school in Minneapolis. She currently oversees the two largest divisions at the Hennepin County Sheriff’s Office—Court Security and Adult Detention.
A 23-year law enforcement veteran, Major Witt expressed that her entire career has revolved around serving the community. “I’ve always been motivated by my desire to help others and want to make positive changes for the citizens of Hennepin County,” Witt said.
In addition to serving on the State of Minnesota Legislative Task Force on Child Protection and the State of Minnesota Task Force on Law Enforcement Education Reform panels, Witt recently received the National Black History Month in Law Enforcement Award from the Police Studies Institute at St. Elizabeth University in New Jersey.
Major Witt recently spoke to the MSR to discuss public safety, reforming jail programs, and her passion for bridging law enforcement and community.
MSR: What inspired you to pursue a career in law enforcement?
DW: How it all started was the day I went on a tour at the Hennepin County jail. They talked about how they needed more women in that field—specifically, more women of color. Growing up in Chicago and South Minneapolis, I never saw myself going into this field since I didn’t come from a background where we had a lot of trust in law enforcement.
So, when I started working in the jail and started having more interactions and conversations with law enforcement, I got to know the officers as individuals. It was very different from what I knew growing up, yet I realized this is where I was supposed to be. I believe my background brings a much-needed perspective within public service.
MSR: What is your day-to-day experience like in your current role, and how has it helped you reimagine the criminal justice system?
DW: As a Major within Hennepin County, my primary role is to oversee the courts and jail—the two largest divisions underpinning the County Sheriff’s Office. With over 400 employees under my umbrella, I sometimes feel like a fire woman since I’m always responding to the needs of both our team as well as those going through the court system.
Staffing is a huge issue right now, not just in Minnesota but across the country. I’m always trying to think of innovative ways to fix this problem, while also being mindful of everything going on in our society.
MSR: What type of work have you done this past year to investigate ways of improving the correctional system?
I started my career as a detention deputy, so I’ve never forgotten how I felt working in that environment. Recently, I’ve spent time with parents listening to their concerns about their loved ones in our facility. I have to be open to hear that because they are sharing their experience, and what their adult children are experiencing within their own lens. I believe you should never shut off that communication—whether it’s accurate or not.
We need to remember we’re humans—the people in jail are humans, the people who work at the jail are humans—and we need to listen. You can’t fix everything. But sometimes all people want to know is they’re being heard.
MSR: What are your goals when/if elected to this position?
DW: I believe every voice needs to be at the table. And if we are to be better, we need to make sure that we’re listening to all aspects. So, priority for me is bridging conflict, whether it’s confronting violence, which is huge right now, to bringing more programs into the jail.
Many folks in our community believe people who go to jail mostly end up in prison, when in fact jails serve as pretrial facilities in Minnesota, which means most people get released and go home. To fight recidivism, we need to ask ourselves what resources are missing.
I know some people think those in jail don’t deserve anything. Well, you know what? They’re going to be your neighbors. They’re going to be the people serving you food. They’re going to be the people on the bus.
Why shouldn’t we give resources? Confronting violent crime is a must, but at the same time, offering different programs and resources in the jail can help combat recidivism.
In times of trouble, we must work together despite whatever party affiliation or profession we are. We all have the same goal at the end, and sometimes it’s setting down that pride to do what we know we need to do.
MSR: One of your major platforms is addressing Hennepin County’s jail programs to reduce recidivism. Specifically, where in the system do you expect to make the most impact?
DW: One of the areas I would focus on is education. Working with the County Board, I would like to see additional classroom space where we can provide more people with opportunities to learn. Jail time doesn’t have to mean dead time. To limit ourselves to say we’re only going to offer a GED and high school diploma is an injustice.
I think all our agencies need to come together to find ways to enhance educational opportunities and provide incarcerated people different avenues to learn things like life skills, parenting skills and financial classes. So, let’s open Pandora’s Box while we have their attention and offer ways to enhance their opportunities, while trying to solve their problems.
MSR: What does accountability look like to you?
DW: We keep talking about accountability, but it’s always directed at a particular profession or a particular person. But really, accountability is a societal thing, where we should all be held accountable no matter who you are and what you do.
Certainly, professional law enforcement has been on the front burner for quite some time now, and we absolutely should be held accountable. We should be looking at ourselves, including who we’re hiring and what discipline comes down.
But we also need to start with individual accountability. And as you move up the chain and you’re talking about organizations, hold your people accountable.
MSR: What place do the police have in the community, and what are your thoughts on the calls to defund the police?
DW: We throw around the term “community policing” too loosely. It should not just be patrolling around. It should be about getting out of our patrol cars, talking to people, knowing the neighborhood, and knowing individuals’ names. We can’t expect for people to give us respect just because we wear a uniform or badge. We need to give respect, too.
This is 2022. No one should be surprised by an officer greeting them on the street. We set ourselves up when we’re just responding to calls. There are so many opportunities for us to become closer with the communities that we police. Our license says “peace officer.” Think about the word peace, and you think about enforcement completely different. We need to be intentional about adding more [training on] cultural differences to make people better peace officers.
Saying we’re going to defund the police is ridiculous. I mean, just turn on any news channel, just go outside, just go talk to people. People are aligned right now. You look at the carjackings, shootings, the property damage—people have lost their sense of safety and livelihoods.
Do you think now is the time to say, “Defund the police”? We should instead be talking about how we make this profession more than it is today to support the community.
MSR: Are you looking into recruitment options from the community directly?
DW: We must attract younger generations because we need the right people in this profession. One of the best courses is our Exploring program, designed for young adults from 14 to 20 to learn about the profession and gain police skills. We need to encourage younger people that this is a noble profession, so the community plays a big part of that.
The recruitment programs that are currently in place need to be enhanced and properly funded. Recruiting shouldn’t start when somebody is 18 or 21; we need to have positive experiences for those who are younger. I understand the importance of this based on my own upbringing.
To learn more about Major Dawanna Witt and her candidacy, head to www.wittforsheriff.com.
Julie Gordon is a contributor to the Minnesota Spokesman-Recorder.com. To get in touch, email firstname.lastname@example.org.