Blog | March 21, 2024

Leadership and Compassion Guide Sheriff Dawanna Witt’s Work

“I never saw myself in this field,” began Sheriff Dawanna Witt of Hennepin County, Minnesota. Growing up surrounded by adults with substance abuse disorders, “I had lots of invitation for law enforcement in me and my siblings’ life,” she said. “From my experiences, I didn’t like them.”

Fast forward to November 2022, when Major Witt is elected to Sheriff—the first woman sheriff in Hennepin County and the first black woman sheriff in Minnesota.

Sheriff Dawanna Witt Headshot

But Sheriff Witt’s transition to law enforcement is not as unexpected as it may at first seem. Throughout her career, she has been exceedingly dedicated to connecting with and supporting individuals in her community. After becoming a mother at age 15, Sheriff Witt committed to giving her daughter a better life than she had experienced and set out on her own, becoming involved in basketball, completing her high school studies, and earning scholarships to go to college. Upon finishing her degree in chemical dependency and family therapy, Sheriff Witt worked for nonprofits and residential treatment facilities, supporting “families that were like [her] family.” “All I ever wanted to do was change the wrongs with our system as a whole,” she explained. “I wanted to be the person who me and my siblings needed to see.” After several years working with families experiencing substance use disorders, Sheriff Witt then learned that the Hennepin County Jail was greatly in need of more women—particularly black women—to serve as detention deputies. Guided by her passion for working with underserved communities, Sheriff Witt took the job, and began her celebrated career in law enforcement.

Sheriff Witt uses her public-facing office to inspire and uplift others, particularly young people. “I didn’t come from a background where people told me ‘Yes, you can,’” she said. “All I heard was what you can’t do.” Her time coaching basketball for young girls was particularly rewarding, and she values the relationships she still has with her athletes today. Her office runs an Explorer Program, which gives young people an insight into a career in law enforcement, and helps train students to become licensed peace officers. Sheriff Witt also hopes to start a mentoring program for young people, whether or not they want to pursue a career in law enforcement, after a young woman in her community reached out to her to learn more about Sheriff Witt’s background and how she became involved in the field. “When young people are reaching out to us, we need to reach out sooner rather than later,” she explained. “I don’t want to overlook kids who need us adults to help them. I’m always thinking how we as a profession can build these kids up. If we’re always just responding to bad things, they’ll never see us in a good way.”

Sheriff Witt’s personal understanding of the individuals in her community is exceptional, but implementing services can be difficult due to funding. “I wish there was a way that I could be funded to do exactly what I know needs done,” she said, speaking of the need for preventative and interventive programs. “We have to get creative, but we are being stretched. Responding to all the crime, and juvenile crime, is taking away from our proactive work.” Her community outreach and public affairs team conducts prevention work in Hennepin County, but the team is short staffed. “We can’t afford not to do those things,” she said, “but preventing and intervening costs money.”

Despite challenges, Sheriff Witt remains committed to her community and to building an inclusive Sheriff’s Office. “True diversity is about those lived experiences,” Sheriff Witt said, which is one of the reasons why she is working to recruit more women to a career in law enforcement. Her office is part of the 30x30 Initiative, which aims for law enforcement officers to be made up of 30 percent women by the year 2030.

“I don’t want to conform to what people think law enforcement should be,” said Sheriff Witt. Though her path to law enforcement may have not been akin to most, Sheriff Witt’s work certainly aligns with the principles of great community service—leadership, dedication, and compassion.


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