Sidebar: My Thoughts on the Wright County Sheriff’s Office

Photo: Sheriff Rosco P. Coltrane and Deputy Enos Strate, Dukes of Hazzard

When I re-launched this blog two years ago, I promised (or should I say, warned?) that I would sometimes veer from black letter legal commentary when I had a thought or two on another important topic.  This is one of those times, so let’s just call this genre of posts a “Sidebar”, to keep some legalese in there.

The recent row in Forest Lake, Minnesota as to whether the City should eliminate its police department and instead contract with Washington County for the City’s law enforcement needs has shed light on a practice common to several small Minnesota communities who may lack the resources to have their own full-time police departments; namely, the practice of contracting with the county sheriff’s department to have an agreed upon number of deputies cover that particular city’s law enforcement needs.

In the end, the Forest Lake City Council reached an agreement with the police union as to a new three-year contract.   Speaking as someone who lives in one of those communities which utilizes contracted deputies from the sheriff’s department, I believe that Forest Lake made the right decision.

My wife and I live in northeastern Wright County (the City of Albertville, to be exact).  Wright County has historically been a rural/agricultural area, and all but two cities within Wright County (Buffalo and Howard Lake) use the Wright County Sheriff as the sole source of law enforcement within their communities.  Albertville, with its population of approximately 7,000 people, is one of those cities which contracts with the Wright County Sheriff’s office to provide its law enforcement and, at least in the time that we have lived in the City, and in our personal experience, the results have not been positive.

So you can imagine my curiosity when I saw the KSTP-TV story last week regarding a personnel investigation of the Wright County Sheriff’s office.  Admittedly, I do not know much about the investigation beyond what was said in the story, but to be completely blunt and frank, my first reaction to seeing the words “Wright County Sheriff” and “personnel investigation” in the same storyline was “it’s about damn time.”

Why would I say this?  Keep reading.

In the past fifteen plus years, the northeastern portion of Wright County – particularly the cities of Albertville, St. Michael and Otsego – have experienced exponential population growth.  This area of the county is no longer a collection of farms spaced 5-10 miles apart.  Rather, most folks who live in these cities reside in housing developments with houses placed on relatively small (1/4-1/3 acre lots).  This change in local demographics has, in my opinion, exposed issues with how the WCSO provides enforcement in these communities.

Here are just a few examples from our own experiences in dealing with the WCSO:

  • If you’re familiar with the phrase “see something, say something”, well, thanks to the deputies patrolling Albertville during our time living in the city, that common mantra to report violations of law went out the window and led to neighbor disputes.  I heard from numerous neighbors who would report matters such as a dog barking for hours on end or loud music playing (you know, the things that you normally would call the police to deal with) that the deputy responding to the call would disclose which neighbor contacted them, thus transforming seemingly minor issues into major disputes.  It created a toxic environment amongst a group of individuals who were living close together and, thanks to the housing market crash wiping out property values, essentially stuck together for the foreseeable future.
  • We have witnessed deputies waving to folks who were at that moment violating the law.  It could be someone on an ATV riding on a sidewalk, for example, which is a violation of state law and city code, but evidently it wasn’t worth a deputy’s time to simply stop the car and tell the person not to do what they were doing; nope, just a wave and a drive-by.
  • I have on occasion called the WCSO’s non-emergency line to report shenanigans taking place on the vacant land behind our home.  With rare exception, most of the time the deputy responding arrives long after the offending individuals have left the area.  In one particular instance I watched the deputy drive right past the violation occurring, turn down a different street, then called me to tell me that he couldn’t see anything.
  • When I met Sheriff Joe Hagerty a number of years ago he boasted about a new attitude of customer service in his Department which included having deputies call the resident who reported the issue and state how the matter was resolved.  He explained to me that they were able to have this information at their fingertips in the squad cars since all cars were equipped with computers.  Evidently those computers aren’t connected to the internet as my wife and I have both quoted statutory provisions to a deputy in regards to a specific violation only to hear dead silence on the other end of the phone.
  • Most troubling is what we have perceived as a negative attitude towards women.  As I have documented on this blog on previous occasions, we have had numerous issues with our next door neighbor, including catching him repeatedly peeking in our windows while my wife was home alone to the point where we now have a very expensive fence and what it is perhaps the most extensive landscaping in the development simply to keep him out…but I digress.  In 2009, my wife told this neighbor – who, happens to be with the Anoka County Sheriff office (thus a “brother in arms” with the WCSO) – who was once again standing in our yard that we could get along a lot better that summer if he would just stay on his side of the lot line – not an unreasonable request and it was said in a very calm and polite tone of voice.  So you can imagine my wife’s surprise when, ten minutes later a Deputy Nalezny showed up at our front door to ask her why she had “confronted” (his word) her neighbor, even though the neighbor was trespassing on our property at the time she asked him not to.  Fast forward to  August 2014, when an angry mob was congregating in our driveway because earlier that day my wife had the audacity to tell some of their children – including, by the way, children living at the next door neighbor’s house, but I again, I digress – that throwing rocks at our home was vandalism and if it happened again she was going to call the Sheriff, the very same Deputy Nalezny  answered the call and told my wife that unless the members of the mob had “visible weapons” there was nothing he could do.  I find it interesting, when a woman politely asks a man who is then trespassing on her property not to do so, in the WCSO’s world that constitutes a “confrontation” which merits a deputy to come out, but when the woman calls because she is actually being confronted that the very same deputy says there’s nothing he can do.

To be fair, there are a number of newer deputies with whom I’ve interacted who are doing a great job.  I worry, though, as to how long they’ll stay with the department given the culture and given the responsibilities placed upon them when a city such as Albertville may not be hiring enough deputies based upon its current law enforcement needs.  When a deputy tells you that the Albertville Premium Outlets “are going to be the death of” him, when mall employees ask us “locals” to tell our local officials to provide them with more law enforcement, and with another mall project slated to begin construction soon, as a resident, it concerns me that our City does not have adequate coverage through the WCSO.  That, however, is a separate issue from the WCSO’s competency and attitudes.  At heart, the WCSO has to accept that a portion of the County has essentially been annexed into the Twin Cities metro area, yet some of these cities are still too small to have their own police force.  Patrolling a city with multiple residential developments requires a different skill set from patrolling a largely rural community with farms spaced ten miles apart, and the WCSO must adapt to this new reality when making decisions as to the hiring and retention of its deputies.

In my opinion, the WCSO has issues with competency and, putting it bluntly, misogyny.  It’s time to end the “boys will be boys” attitudes.  Many of the housing developments halted during the market crash are now seeing new construction again, meaning that unless addressed, the issues in the WCSO are going to get worse before they get better, and that could lead to other problems or even a general reputation that our growing communities aren’t quite ready for prime time.

Back to the starting point of this discussion, I don’t know if the ongoing investigation will lead to any changes within the WCSO.  I am hopeful though that my speaking out about my family’s experiences may prompt officials to look deeper than just this single complaint.  I think it’s time for new leadership, a new attitude towards a changing population and an improved culture, and no more of the “we’ve always done it this way” attitude that is pervasive in this community.

One more thing before I go.  To KSTP-TV and reporter Jay Kolls: while you’re reporting on screwed-up sheriff’s departments, you might want to shine a light over on Anoka County; they hire some real gems over there….

OK, end of sidebar.

NOTE:  the views expressed in this post are my own personal opinions based upon my own personal experiences.

Posted in Blog