Long before Sheriff James Stuart was elected in November, he spent years doing a little of everything in the department -- from SWAT teams to managing the construction of the $27 million sheriff's office.
He has fought through blizzards and terrible roads to reach a partner in trouble, chased a suspect through a yard of angry Rottweilers and been greeted by gunfire while answering SWAT team calls.
But ask new Anoka County Sheriff James Stuart about his career in law enforcement and he immediately recalls a childhood meeting with a St. Paul police officer at a wedding reception.
"He was nice, tolerant and when I walked away, I thought, 'I want to be one of these good guys,'" Stuart, 44, said recently.
"It was either that or become an astronaut."
A Police Explorer at Woodbury High School, Stuart -- now a husband and father of three who says he "never grew up" -- was the overwhelming choice of voters in November to succeed recently retired Sheriff Bruce Andersohn.
"I'm mindful that I always want to do this, I'm mindful of the day I was sworn in to this Sheriff's Department, and I'm mindful that we have a calling in life," Stuart said. "And if this is mine, then I have to keep striving to fulfill expectations."
He's all too aware that he has taken the sheriff's reins during "economic times like none of us ever anticipated."
Ham Lake, which has no police department and is one of several Anoka County cities that contract with the Sheriff's Office for protection, recently talked about a perceived economic necessity to sharply pare patrol hours. A compromise was reached to minimize a cutback, but Stuart knows that his department could face similar contract negotiations with other cities.
"The cities contracting with us have to remember that they're ahead of the scale," Stuart said, noting the expenses of starting and housing a new police department, hiring a chief, training officers and buying cars and equipment.
"Each city has to make its own decision, including cities with small police departments that may consider folding. There are things the Sheriff's Department brings to the table."
One badge, many hats
Those include the $27 million, state-of-the-art office and tri-county forensic lab that opened last year in Andover, prompting at least one awed visitor, Hennepin County Sheriff Rich Stanek, to ask, "How do I get one of these?"
It was Stuart, then a captain within the department, who was project manager for the 135,000-square-foot building, one of many hats he's worn.
A graduate of Inver Hills Community College who later earned a bachelor's degree from St. Mary's University, Stuart is a former Marine MP who worked security at shopping centers in Roseville. He was a member of the State Fair police before joining the Anoka County Sheriff's Department.
For the county, he has worked as a patrol deputy and on the K-9 squad, the bike patrol and the SWAT team. He was an Honor Guard commander, supervised the department's civil-process unit and was a lieutenant in the patrol division.
He has busted meth labs in rural areas and trailer parks, and now worries about an increase in heroin trafficking within the county. He's been involved with DWI enforcement and combatting vandalism sprees.
'Some of it's painful'
"The full scope of the Sheriff's Office can be daunting," he said. "Some of it's painful: Juvenile suicides, bad crashes that result in tragic deaths. ... There's nothing worse.
"When we put on this badge and agree to this oath, we know the emotional difficulties that come with the job."
After more than 16 years with the Sheriff's Department, he says he's ready for his new challenges. Andersohn and his chief deputy, Loni Payne, have been great mentors who "went out of their way" to ensure a smooth transition, Stuart said. Rather than rest on their laurels, Stuart wants to be proactive, embracing technology and attacking dangerous trends from the outset.
"I'm not sure how long it will take to soak in ... that I'm the sheriff," he said. "But it doesn't matter because there's no time to sit and think about it.
"Sure, it's surreal. But there are lots of initiatives and programs that need attention. I want to hit the ground running."
Paul Levy • 612-673-4419