Dawanna Witt is the first woman and the first Black person to lead the Hennepin County Sheriff’s Office.
Sitting in the department’s main reception area, one can’t help but notice the picture wall with Witt’s color photo standing out amid the array of all-White men who previously served as county sheriff.
“What I’m most proud about is that I never compromised who I was to get on that wall,” stressed Witt during our sit-down interview last week in her corner office in City Hall. “I never pretended to be somebody else. I am comfortable in my skin.
“If nothing else, it’s not just that I’m a Black woman who’s the first, but I did it by being me. That’s the message that needs to get to people. You don’t have to be someone else. You don’t have to conform to something that is different from your core values. You can do it being you.”
Witt defeated Joseph Banks by almost a two-to-one margin last November in a historic election that featured two Black candidates running for sheriff. She was sworn into office in January, and the new sheriff readily admitted that she hasn’t stopped running since.
“Since day one, it has been go, go, go,” said Witt. “I want to make sure that I deliver, because being the first woman, also the first Black woman to do this, I know there’s a lot of people who have eyes on me. There’s some that are supporting me, and there’s some wanting to see whatever my mistakes are.
“I got a lot of work to do, internally and externally,” she stressed.
Witt is taking charge of a law enforcement department that has been oft-criticized in recent years when crime rates have risen, especially during the pandemic and with George Floyd’s murder in 2020. Combating violent crime in the county is a top priority. But the sheriff wants to ensure that her 800-plus staff, including 300-plus deputies, is up to the challenge.
“One of the things I said to my staff is that anything that resembles a good ole boy system is out the window,” she continued. “What I’m looking for is a team that has the passion to do this work.”
Previously, Witt headed the county’s adult detention and court services. Along with that department, she now oversees the state’s largest jail, among other departments, as well as providing assistance whenever needed in municipalities such as Minneapolis and the inner-ring suburbs.
The sheriff also wants to recruit more officers and properly train them to serve all Hennepin County residents. “I just want the best people who have passion to do this work, because that passion will drive us all to do the best and to get to a better place.”
Witt’s passion is obvious as she talks about her job and law enforcement in general. She loves to talk, but more importantly, she listens as well. She quickly points out that it wasn’t always that way for her.
Growing up on the South Side in a large family, “I was always reserved, just kept things to myself. I think a lot of that was just based on my upbringing. I used to be the quiet one. I used to be shy.”
But that shyness soon disappeared, or as Witt calls it, she was forced to “transition” and become more assertive. “I was a mom at 15, on my own, still going to high school and taking care of my baby,” she said proudly.
Witt went on to attend and complete college and become a family worker. “My first degree was in chemical dependency and family therapy. So I was working in those two environments with families who are often in our criminal justice system as well as child protection services,” she recalled. “It was a lot of work, but I enjoyed it because it was something that I could relate to.”
She took her own experience and skills and transformed them into a two-decades-plus career in law enforcement—first at the Hennepin County jail in 2000, then later in positions with Dakota and Hastings counties before returning to Hennepin in 2019 as a major in the detention and court services department.
Her career change also caught some of her family members off guard. “I come from a very colorful family when it comes to the law,” Witt said smiling.
“There are some family members who did not appreciate or like the fact that I went into the [law enforcement] field. Some of them were just afraid that this profession would change me. But those who stuck around and supported me saw that I was still the same.
“The law enforcement profession needs more de-escalation skills,” Witt said. “We need to understand that sometimes people just need to be heard. They need to know that people are taking the time to actually understand them, instead of putting them in a box or a stereotype of what you think they should be doing or what you think they should be like.
“They need to know how to deal with conflicts better,” she pointed out.
As she approaches her first 100 days in office, Witt knows that there is so much to do and no time to celebrate.
“At this time the sheriff of Hennepin County is someone who is actually doing this job because I care about what happens next,” said Witt. “I understand the importance of making sure that we are proactive” in combating violent crime and other issues facing the county, she added.
“This is what I will say to your readers. You can be compassionate. You can be empathetic. And you can also hold people accountable. To say that you can only be one or the other, that’s the wrong answer.
“I’m somebody who believes that all of these things can be done, and that’s how I will handle myself in this new role.”
This story was updated to correct the name of the Hennepin County Sheriff’s Office.
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