Twenty-seven men – yes, they’ve all been men – have served as Stearns County sheriff. On Nov. 6, Stearns County voters will elect the 28th sheriff.
In recent times they’ve been elected, but the job didn’t start that way.
On March 3, 1855, three Stearns County commissioners appointed Luther B. Hammond as the county’s first sheriff.
The three commissioners were appointed by territorial Gov. Willis A. Gorman, a Democrat. Gorman was appointed by President Franklin Pierce, also a Democrat.
Stearns County had its first appointed sheriff, three years before Minnesota became a state.
Hammond was a busy guy. He was also appointed an election judge. Three months later, on June 14, 1855, Hammond resigned when he and three other men were granted a license to run a ferry on the Mississippi River.
Henry Witzheimer replaced Hammond until Joseph Edelbrock was appointed in 1856.
During Edelbrock’s tenure, Stearns County’s first murder occurred on July 5, 1856. A fight with racial divisions about who should control a dance broke out. In the melee, Henry Becker was struck in the head. He died two weeks later and a man identified in William Bell Mitchell’s “History of Stearns County” as “Clemens, the sailor” was charged.
What could go wrong? Lots.
Because Stearns County didn’t have a jail, Sheriff Edelbrock took the prisoner to the Hennepin County Jail. Clemens the sailor escaped and in Stearns County’s first case of getting away with murder, he was not recaptured. But even though Hennepin County lost the prisoner, Hennepin County commissioners found the nerve to bill Stearns County for his room and board.
This past week, I interviewed the two men running this year for Stearns sheriff. Dave Bentrud and Steve Soyka offer voters years of law enforcement experience along with different visions for leading the sheriff’s office.
Our conversations covered topics ranging from human relations to technology to budgeting in addition to basics of law enforcement.
Their impressive knowledge and experience reminded me that we haven’t always elected sheriffs. During the interview, Bentrud and Soyka displayed a depth and breadth of knowledge required of few other elected officials. And despite the rapid turnover and early management issues in the 1850s, perhaps we should return to appointed sheriffs.
Most elected officials deal with setting policies and strategic goals. They don’t need a deep education and experience to serve because they hire staff with special expertise to execute the policies.
Mayors hire city managers and police chiefs. School boards hire superintendents. Governors appoint experts in finance and transportation. Members of Congress hire staff with expertise in intelligence, defense and foreign affairs.
Just having good ideas for policy doesn’t guarantee you’d be a good sheriff. A sheriff needs academic training and experience on the street to do the job.
Since 1973, Minnesota Statutes allow a county to appoint an auditor, treasurer, sheriff or recorder if approved by voters in a referendum.
Maybe it’s time to consider an appointed sheriff.
Electing a sheriff gives voters a voice in their government, a connection to law enforcement and a way to hold law enforcement directly accountable that is deeply rooted in Anglo-Saxon tradition.
The role of sheriff began in England and moved across the Atlantic to the colonies.
Americans continued the practice of electing sheriffs and affirmed the common-law powers of the sheriff, especially autonomy and independence. In 1878, Congress passed the Posse Comitatus Act, setting down the rules of law enforcement.
Legally, little has changed since then. So maybe it’s time to return to the pre-statehood practice and take advantage of the provisions in the 1973 law to appoint a sheriff.