The light side of the law

  • Article by: JOY POWELL , Star Tribune
  • Updated: January 19, 2010 - 5:55 PM

Sheriff Don Gudmundson calls law enforcement "a front-row seat to the greatest show on Earth." A newsletter his office publishes captures that flavor.


Joe Engesser, left, and Chief Deputy Dave Bellows contribute to a newsletter.

Photo: David Brewster, Star Tribune

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From the humorous to the bizarre to the uplifting, it's all covered in the true stories that appear in the weekly newsletter "The Front Row" by the Dakota County Sheriff's Office.

Take one titled "A Boo-tiful Arrest," which tells how patrol Sgt. Scott Durdall, trying to serve a felony warrant, nabbed his fugitive on Halloween night. Durdall borrowed a sheet from the jail and went to knock on the man's front door. But first, as the newsletter tells it:

"Scott donned the sheet and became 'Casper the Friendly Ghost.' Stooping down to make himself look more child-like, he uttered those famous words, 'Trick or Treat.' The man came to the door expecting to hand out a treat, but soon found out it was a well-orchestrated trick."

There are not only stories like this that provide a peek into the workings and people of the Sheriff's Office, but also original cartoons, photos, charts -- and a growing following among the public.

Sheriff Don Gudmundson has long liked to say, "Law enforcement is a front-row seat to the greatest show on Earth" and so he dubbed the newsletter "The Front Row." The 2005 inaugural edition explains why:

"Working in law enforcement and corrections puts all of us in the front-row seat of life. Many times, it is the tragic events that we witness in our jobs and having to deal with the aftermath for families and loved ones, but we are also fortunate to see firsthand some of the funniest and most unbelievable things in people."

There are the meth addicts who report being ripped off by their dealers, the erratic driver who blamed it on hemorrhoids, and the fight that broke out in the jail after an inmate's wife and girlfriend showed up at the same time for a visit. "He might be wise to ask the judge for an extended sentence," quipped the newsletter.

There are stories of the sheriff's dive team helping to search for bodies in the murky Mississippi after the collapse of the Interstate 35W bridge. There are trend pieces, such as one this month on the numbers of sheriff's sales of foreclosed homes, which are dropping. There are rescues, like that of the young man whose arm was nearly cut off in a farm accident. And there's news from within this law enforcement family, from new hires to retirements, from births to deaths.

Gudmundson first penned a newsletter in 1989 while Lakeville police chief. It was a hard-copy weekly internal summary called "Breezes." Then came the Internet, and the distribution expanded outside of the department. He became sheriff in 1995 and put out modest weekly updates from Hastings for a few years. In 2005, Chief Deputy Dave Bellows encouraged Gudmundson to really get the newsletter going.

Today, hundreds of issues later, it's widely read on the sheriff's website at and sent out to a growing list of e-mail recipients.

Gudmundson and Bellows take turns writing the newsletter, injecting wit when they can to counter the grimness that permeates this profession. Administrative assistant Julie Ecker puts together the stories, photos, headlines and more. And a talented jail guard, "Jailer Joe" Engesser, whips up cartoons based on life in the jail.

The weekly, two-page newsletters are not only a way to realistically show what police work is about -- in contrast to the perception that many television viewers get from cop shows -- but also a forum for highlighting the good work by more than 200 employees of the sheriff's office and jail, Bellows and Gudmundson said.

"When I write it, I want to acknowledge our folks," Bellows said. "I also want to give a sense of what it's like to be a member of the Dakota County Sheriff's Office."

Poking fun at a serious job

The newsletter is accented with the slightly twisted humor that law enforcers develop as a response to dealing with so much tragedy.

"We try to find some humor in some things, because that's what keeps our sanity in this profession," Bellows said. "We have a serious job, but there is humor in the work we do."

In a career where deputies can become jaded, Gudmundson said, "you need to have a lighter side, even though in many instances this is a deadly serious job, literally, and that's one thing the newsletter can do."

He wanted to ensure from the start, the sheriff said, that nothing in the newsletter would be "mean-spirited." He points to Engesser's cartoons, which softly poke fun at both inmates and guards while illuminating humanity found even here, in the jail.

Engesser works 12-hour shifts inside the jail's locked "day area," which typically holds about 50 inmates. It's where Engesser finds inspiration for the drawing he does in his Red Wing studio.

"I definitely have a unique vantage point working in a housing unit every day," he said. "And a lot of the ideas I get for cartoons are directly from situations that happen in there. That's what makes it unique, and people find it as a way they can look into the jail if they're curious in any way, and maybe get a little insight into the world inside the lockup."

Ecker said editing the newsletter is a favorite part of her job, and that many look forward to the latest edition. "It's a source of pride," she said.

Joy Powell • 952-882-9017

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