BY GABE LICHT
DELANO, MN While the five candidates for Wright County Sheriff addressed a plethora of questions in front of a standing-room-only crowd of more than 200 people Monday at Delano City Hall, much of the discussion centered around training and retaining staff, especially deputies.
Mental health training
As candidates Stacy Braun, Sean Deringer, Mike Kaczmarek, Drew Scherber, and Chad Torkelson identified what their three priorities as sheriff would be, training especially regarding how to handle mental health concerns was a common theme.
Torkelson talked about deputies such as himself seeing “things they shouldn’t see.”
“How do we deal with it? We don’t. We put on a good show,” he said. “We lose a lot of great people in this world because of mental health problems.”
He added later that he would like to work with organizations like Family Youth Community Connections and Suicide Awareness Voices of Education to disseminate information about mental health resources both inside and outside of the walls of the sheriff’s office.
Scherber, a sergeant, addressed mental illness by the numbers.
“Twenty percent of the population has some sort of mental health issue,” he said. “We need to make sure deputies are trained in that, so we can respond to those and help those who are struggling . . . if we go to those scenes, we can deal with it, identify it, and relate to what those folks are going through. They’re in a dark place at that time, and we’re there to help them.”
Deringer said the Minnesota Police Officer Standards and Training Board is now mandating that at least 16 of the 40 hours of continuing education required every three years be focused on mental health.
As a member of two cooperatives focused on the issue, the patrol captain believes “we’re probably making more headway in the past couple months than we have in the past couple years.”
That is leading to a change in protocol for patrol staff, which will involve the Central Minnesota Mental Health Center, he said.
Kaczmarek is a longtime deputy who has also been a Metro Transit police officer for 18 years.
“I connect with Minneapolis and St. Paul officers regularly, and I know St. Paul recently started a mental health unit, so I’d be able to reach out to them,” Kaczmarek said. “That’s my plan to find out how that’s working and the effect it’s having on St. Paul because they’re a large department, as we are, and have similar concerns.”
Braun cited his background in forensic, or criminal, psychology, in addition to his experience as a crisis intervention team member for the City of Minneapolis in 2000. He added that “the Barbara Schneider Foundation would love to come in and train all our deputies because, believe it or not, there’s a lot of mental health issues sitting in this room.”
Braun, a longtime Hennepin County deputy, emphasized the importance of first-responder training.
“If I were to have some kind of emergency medical situation at my home in Monticello, where there is also a hospital, I am not confident the deputy who arrives at my house to help with my medical condition is properly trained to do so,” Braun said. “I’d mandate that each and every deputy has first-responder training and certification, and they maintain that. It’s something that is required by the Minnesota Police Officer Standard and Training Board to even activate your license when you first become a police officer. Why it hasn’t continued on with our deputies, I don’t know.”
As candidates such as Braun promoted the need for each deputy to have access to equipment such as a TASER and a rifle, Kaczmarek said, “Along with that, we need to have training ongoing training at least a couple times a year to be proficient with these items. I don’t know if it’s going on quite as it should be.”
He’d also like to see the sheriff’s office collaborate with other law enforcement agencies, fire departments, and emergency management services for active-shooter training.
Braun noted, “In the last year alone, there were 30 active-shooter incidents in the country. Wright County is not immune to that.”
Pat Borrell, of Waverly, asked if any of the candidates had participated in fear-based training, or if they would have members of the department do so.
While each candidate said they had not undergone such training and would not ask or require their deputies to do so, they each added their own perspective on the topic.
“It refers to the natural human instinct to not want to take someone’s life and you have to overcome that to become a warrior and survive; otherwise, the consequence is you could be killed yourself,” Kaczmarek said of the training philosophy.
Training should focus on helping officers make good decisions quickly, Braun said.
“These are difficult situations oftentimes that our men and women in law enforcement go through every day,” he said. “We have to make snap decisions, rather quick decisions, especially under stress and amidst other elements that are not a part of normal nature . . . If we keep training wholesome and complementary to the men and women of law enforcement of situation-based training, it would benefit and foster good deputies in the office.”
Torkelson referred to his experience leading laser shot training.
“We were trying to get it so there was not always a shoot situation,” Torkelson said. “We don’t want to have our guys going into a building automatically thinking we’re shooting. We just want to make sure individuals can talk their way through it first.”
Deringer said he has been a firearms, taser, and less-lethal instructor for much of his career, and that training did not include a fear-based emphasis.
He broke down some of the statistics regarding use of force.
“We haven’t had an officer-involved shooting since 2008. I was actually involved in that incident,” Deringer said. “We have tased one person in the last 2.5 years in Wright County. I can’t remember the last baton incident. We’ve also maced one person in the last two years in Wright County. I think the current sheriff says it well: we effectively talk to people, talk with people like they’re a family member. We still fill up the jail, but we treat people well.”
Scherber said the department needs to stay up-to-date with the training it provides while also using a “train the trainer” approach so one officers can train many others, which would positively impact the budget.
Another hot topic that all candidates address was retention in light of the fact that only six of 50 deputies hired within the past three years are still with the department, according to Deringer.
Torkelson identified retention as his top priority, as he has seen friends with 10 to 15 years of experience who were working in the criminal investigations division leave for other departments despite having to work nights and weekends at their new positions.
“These individuals said it was the current climate,” Torkelson said after stating he does not believe the pay rate is the reason why people leave. “I want to change that climate. I want to make the Wright County Sheriff’s Office the best sheriff’s office. I want deputies to come here, move into the communities, enjoy the communities, and get involved in the communities. Plus, we don’t have to spend so much time retraining these deputies that are new.”
Deringer said doing so costs $70,000 per deputy in addition to the efforts to coach and mentor “that person who works for us for two or three years and then works for another agency and takes those skills they learned from us.”
“The No. 1 reason for leaving is schedule,” he added later, detailing that each deputy works an eight-hour shift for six days straight followed by three days off. “Most are leaving for a 10- or 12-hour shift.”
While attending the FBI National Academy in 2015, he wrote a 12-page paper about how to retain people.
“I’d like to create a mentorship program and an incentive-based wellness program,” Deringer said.
Kaczmarek again mentioned the number of employees who have left since 2015 and said, “I’d like to work on department culture because, behind schedule, that’s the No. 1 reason why officers are leaving.”
He’d like to see more recognition of officers, especially during Police Week, to help boost morale.
“We can have all our efforts, agendas, and community programs, but if you don’t keep your employees happy, you’re not going to produce the best work product,” Kaczmarek said. “My plan would be to hire, train, and equip good candidates without lowering the bar, holding them accountable, getting out of their way, and letting them do their job.”
He did acknowledge that current deputies want to work longer days and have more days off. Braun said he would work to switch to 10- or 12-hour shifts even if it benefited some cities more than others.
Making such a change would be up to the sheriff as the Wright County Board takes a hands-off approach on scheduling, Kaczmarek explained.
What is up to the county board, in working with the union, is the possibility of better wages, health care coverage, and benefits, Scherber said.
Deringer acknowledged that but said the sheriff can communicate with the board about the impacts those decisions are having on the sheriff’s office.
Fairness is also an issue when it comes to retention, according to Scherber.
“We used to have personnel involved in interviews,” he said. “ . . . If we could grab someone from another agency and have them sit on the interview committee, as well, maybe that would help with the fairness issue.
“I’ve proven as an elected official I’ve been fair across the board for the past 18 years,” the former St. Michael City Council member and current St. Michael-Albertville School Board chair said.
Torkelson also highlighted fairness, especially as it relates to individuals seeking promotions or transfers, in his response to the retention question.
He spoke out against having lieutenants conduct some interviews and captains conduct others.
“We’re not being graded by the same people,” Torkelson said. “We don’t know how we’re doing.”
In his case, he said he has unsuccessfully tried to move up the chain of command, and he does not believe those getting promotions are always the most qualified individuals.
To address that, he said he would create a citizen review board.
A safe and welcoming environment
“Considering current concerns and allegations of inequality and harassment, how would you ensure the Wright County Sheriff’s Office is a safe and welcoming environment for all staff?” moderator Becky Schaust asked on behalf of the Delano Area Chamber of Commerce government affairs committee, which organized and sponsored the event.
Braun called the allegations atrocious.
“Some of these allegations have cost you and I a lot of money as taxpayers,” Braun said.
“When I met with the union, I said, ‘Before we go any further, why can’t we talk about things that are issues?’” Braun continued. “ . . . Maybe I’m not seeing it that way. Explain what you’re seeing, explain your understanding of the situation, and maybe you can change how I see things.”
Deringer talked about building relationships with the staff and being fair in resolving issues.
“We basically have 252 professionals in our building. Every single one should be treated with dignity,” he said.
Kaczmarek said he would like to shift the attention from individuals and teams to the entire department. There, he would like to ensure “a work environment free of scourge and oppression so people don’t have to be afraid to go into someone’s office and bring up what they want to bring up without fear of retaliation.”
He also touted the need to be a good listener.
Torkelson and Scherber believe communication is key.
“If you hear someone walking down the hall complaining about what happened, why can’t we take it to the command staff so we can jump on it and can talk to that deputy or secretary?” Torkelson asked rhetorically. “ . . . With the promotions, if we open this up so everyone can see they had a fair shot, who can complain, who can argue with that? If they don’t have a fair shot, you just told that person they’re not worthy.”
Scherber shared how he believes his experience on the STMA School Board could help him in this regard.
“A vast majority of employees are happy, and we get a lot out of our employees,” Scherber said, referring to survey data. “We are the lowest funded district: 331 out of 331, but test scores are in the top 10 percent. We have happy employees. We are getting a lot out of our employees. I think I can bring that same philosophy to the sheriff’s office.”
Sexual assault investigations
In light of a Star Tribune series examining the investigation of sexual assaults and, in many cases, the lack thereof, Renee Cardarelle, of Annandale, asked for the candidates’ perspectives on the matter.
Torkelson said it is the deputy’s responsibility to turn such cases over to the criminal investigations division.
Scherber added that it takes a team approach, often including the Wright County Department of Human Services.
Deringer tried to add a positive perspective.
“As dismal as that report was, actually, Minnesota leads the country and, oftentimes, Wright County leads the state,” Deringer said.
The Star Tribune series has not yet included analysis of uninvestigated or mishandled allegations of sexual assault in Wright County. Furthermore, only a state’s conviction rate on charges filed in sexual assault cases is systematically tracked, not how such cases are handled overall.
Regarding how such cases are handled in Wright County, Deringer said both the sheriff’s office and the Wright County Attorney’s Office have a victim coordinator who makes resources available to those reporting sexual assault.
Kaczmarek expanded the discussion to include domestic assault.
“With a department our size, the third largest in the state, I’d look to have a domestic assault unit so these cases are looked at thoroughly and nothing is rushed, and that we spend all the time and resources that it needs to bring it to a conclusion,” Kaczmarek said, adding that he believes the number of domestic assaults has increased in the past four or five years, compared to his first 20 years in the department.
Braun said, “Having spent many years in investigations, I can tell you the key to having good charges and conviction starts with good and thorough investigation,” Braun said, pledging to send staff to specific training regarding domestic, sexual, or physical assault if deemed necessary.
Hiring, retaining women employees
“I’m a huge advocate for hiring the most qualified individuals, but there seems to be a lack of women. Is there any way that can be looked at?” Faye Kust, of Waverly, asked.
“When we don’t get women to apply, we can’t hire them,” Scherber said. “We try to reach out to groups of people who we want to train. I’m all for hiring the most qualified, no matter who they are.”
Deringer said he believes the solution is recruitment, as only three females qualified to be interviewed for a recent vacancy based on test results.
Through participation in Maple Lake High School’s career day, he has mentored two female students who are now pursuing a career in law enforcement.
Torkelson expanded on Deringer’s idea to recruit in high schools, suggesting that the department recruit at colleges, as well.
That is not the only change he would like to see.
“I know of certain circumstances where we’ve lost some amazing females, and we need to get them back,” Torkelson said. “How we do that is changing our culture.”
In the past 10 years, the department has hired, trained, and retained one female deputy, according to Kaczmarek.
“This question is more for the current administration to answer,” he said. “Either they don’t want to apply here or don’t want to stay here.”
Braun said he is a proponent of having more female officers, saying, “My best human partner in 25 years was a female.”
He alleged that he knows a highly qualified female who had applied for a position in the sheriff’s office, and her employment opportunity was denied.
“Certain females have applied, and have gotten far in the process, and haven’t been able to work for the Wright County Sheriff’s Office,” he said.
Communicating with the public
“I’m not a huge fan of the media,” Braun said. “They only tell us what they want to hear.”
He added that he has had some good experiences with local media, however, and would work with them to communicate with the public.
Torkelson said he would appoint a public relations representative.
“As you can tell, I’m not that wonderful at it,” he said. “I say what I want to say, and get it out.”
Scherber said he would promote transparency through emails, face-to-face meetings, and/or phone calls.
“I’ll tell them what I can, and won’t tell them what I can’t,” he said, citing data practice policy.
“The current sheriff told me it’s better to tell the media something than nothing,” Kaczmarek added. “If you push them away, that’s when things get difficult.”
He believes the public is engaged with the information the sheriff’s office releases, as he receives questions about the sheriff’s reports published in newspapers and read on the radio.
Deringer spoke of public engagement via social media.
After the Buffalo Police Department used that avenue to solve a robbery case, the sheriff’s office joined the social media realm. That decision paid off, he said, as the sheriff’s office used it’s Facebook page to identify an assault suspect in less than a half hour.
He said he currently answers queries from the media, along with public information officer Lt. Matt Treichler, and he would continue to do so if elected sheriff.
“We take those phone calls and respond to them . . . We work oftentimes with the county attorney’s office. They dictate what’s public,” Deringer said.
Officers were candid in answering a question about past disciplinary actions.
Braun remembers the exact date of when he was arrested for driving under the influence: Nov. 11, 2008.
“I have no excuse,” he said. “I have been since been clean and sober.”
In addition to his sobriety which he believes benefits him as a person and business owner, as well as the sheriff’s office he also volunteers with Mothers Against Drunk Driving.
On a lighter note, he was once cited for unsafe driving when he scratched his squad car on a low-hanging branch. He joked about not stopping to prune the tree before responding to the emergency.
Kaczmarek joked about having to blow the dust off his file containing 25 years of evaluations.
He said he received one warning for colliding with a vehicle while attempting to stop an ATV for a violation.
Torkelson said his mouth got him into trouble when a comment he made to a member of another law enforcement agency was caught on video after that individual had moved a stopped vehicle across three lanes of traffic.
“Sometimes, we just overreact. That was my fault. I did it. I own it. The last six years, I’ve been perfect,” he said, rapping his hand on the dais.
Scherber said he was once accused of kicking an individual in the head but was cleared of wrongdoing. He also rear-ended a car in Maple Lake 15 years ago.
“I got a warning in my personnel file, and I haven’t thought about it since,” Scherber said.
Deringer said the first time he was disciplined happened after he declared his candidacy for the position. He was pictured in a photograph, but his name was not readable on his badge.
“The sheriff asked me. He said he was going to get an outside agency to look into it,” Deringer said. “I said, ‘Why would you do that? It’s me in the photo. It’s my campaigning material. I take full responsibility for it . . . No one is above board, and we are all held to the same standards.”
He also participated in a counseling session regarding the importance of taking care of county-issued equipment after he hit his mirror on the side of his garage and it shattered.
Regarding the best characteristic of the sheriff’s office and how he would build on it, Kaczmarek cited a strong connection with the citizens. However, he believes it could be improved, specifically in townships.
“Wright County is made up of 770 square miles,” Kaczmarek said. “Five hundred square miles, between 2 a.m. and 10 a.m., is covered by only three deputies. I’d like to improve that patrol. Our population in 1991 was 68,000. Now, we’re at 140,000 people, and we still have the same number of squads patrolling during that time frame.”
He pointed to a case when he requested a TASER and less-than-lethal ammunition while in Victor Township and was told to ask the Howard Lake Police Department for those resources.
“I’d like to provide those resources from the third largest sheriff’s office, rather than depend on a smaller department,” Kaczmarek said.
Regarding that staffing issue, Deringer said the sheriff’s office has requested for the hiring of six more staff members to be included in the 2019 budget.
He believes the best trait of the sheriff’s office is the ability to serve the people of Wright County.
“We make it very difficult in Wright County to be a criminal or involve yourself in a criminal enterprise,” Deringer said. “ . . . We have to continue to work with our city staff to make sure we’re staying competitive in the public safety sector.”
He later added that the number of drug investigators is down to two, supervised by one sergeant, compared to four investigators and a sergeant when he served in the division for three years starting in 2000. Fully staffing the department would allow for more education opportunities, he said.
Braun spoke about the department’s visibility.
“I see deputies and squad cars all the time and throughout the whole county when I’m out driving around,” Braun said. “I think that’s very important to have that visibility because that will detract from crime.”
He wants to build on that success, foster better relationships with citizens and business owners, and make the sheriff’s office a “flagship department where other departments and other agencies come to for advice.”
Torkelson talked about trust and said he would like to build upon that foundation with more community involvement, including a cone with a cop promotion to incentivize citizens to talk with law enforcement even if they have “gripes or complaints.”
Scherber said the past leaders have always been focused on the citizens.
“There’s a long history of that, starting with Darrell Wolff, Don Hozempa, Gary Miller, and now Joe Hagerty,” Scherber said. “They’ve all kept citizens first. Within that focus, they’ve all been fiscally conservative, and that’s what this county has asked for.
“ I remember when I got hired in 1995, by Don Hozempa,” Scherber continued. “He said, ‘Drew, around here, we take care of the citizens. If you tell them you’re going to do something, you better do it.’”
The five candidates are vying for votes in the Aug. 14 primary election in the wake of Hagerty’s decision not to seek re-election. The top two vote-getters will advance to the general election.