Running in his first election since being appointed to the office last year, Ramsey County Sheriff Jack Serier finds himself up against a familiar name in the county — former Sheriff Bob Fletcher.
Fletcher, now mayor of Vadnais Heights, said he believes the time is right to take back the post he held from 1995 to 2011. He left office after losing to veteran St. Paul police officer Matt Bostrom by 14 percentage points, amid a number of controversies circling the Sheriff's Office.
Now Fletcher, 63, is challenging Bostrom's hand-picked successor, arguing that Serier has taken too long to equip deputies with body cameras and endangered correctional officers through understaffing at the jail.
Fletcher said he wants to bring back reading, sports and crime prevention programs for kids in immigrant and high-risk communities that were disbanded after he left office.
"As sheriff you always have to look over the horizon to what's coming next," he said. "I'd say that 95 percent of police work is about helping people with the small obstacles that are in their way."
Serier, 50, has been a police officer since 1990, spending much of his career with the St. Paul police. He joined the Sheriff's Office as an investigator shortly after Bostrom beat Fletcher in 2010, and five years later worked his way up to chief deputy, the department's number two position.
When Bostrom quit midway through his second term to spearhead a study at Oxford University in England on the "character-based" hiring model he had initiated in Ramsey County, Serier was chosen by the County Board to finish his term. Serier continued using Bostrom's hiring model, which prioritizes character over skills and involves intensive backgrounding.
"You have to have a heart of service," Serier said. "That's what we do. The philosophy is to hire for character and train for skill. If we can find good people first, then I'll train them for the role we need."
'Moving in right direction'
Shortly after he was appointed sheriff, Serier came under scrutiny for staffing issues at the jail. As more and more correctional officers were forced to work overtime, they began circulating a petition of no confidence.
To stem the trend, Serier and the County Board went on a hiring blitz. By last December, the Sheriff's Office boasted a full staff and had virtually eliminated forced overtime. Serier worked with the union to establish a schedule giving officers more choice over the length of their shifts and days of the week they work.
Any staffing issues have been largely addressed, said Brian Aldes, secretary-treasurer and principal officer of Teamsters Local 320, which represents the county's correctional officers.
"Things are definitely moving in the right direction," Aldes said. "We feel like we've been able to sit down with the administration and address our concerns or any issues as they come up."
The union is not endorsing either candidate in the race, though Serier has won backing from the DFL Party.
As sheriff, Serier ended the practice of holding detainees for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). He has hired a full-time psychologist and a social worker with a background in mental health services to work with inmates in the jail, with the goal of improving mental health services and addiction treatment within the justice system.
Serier said he wants to connect inmates with housing and medical care after they leave jail so that they won't just cycle back through the system.
"We don't want it so we start treating you in jail and now we wash our hands and say, 'Good luck now that you're leaving,' " he said.
Serier plans to equip all officers with body cameras by Jan. 1, 2020. Deputies are testing cameras and software from a variety of vendors to find the best fit, he said.
"This is a multimillion-dollar investment. To do it right takes time. To do it wrong is expensive," he said.
'A wake-up call'
Fletcher said there was no excuse for the fact that sheriff's deputies still lack body cameras more than two years after the Philando Castile shooting in Falcon Heights.
"That should have been a wake-up call for immediate implementation," he said.
Fletcher, who lost a son to a drug overdose, said the county can't rely on nurses alone to take care of inmates in jail. He said he would hire a staff doctor to make sure people were getting needed medications.
"If we set it up so when you get locked up you're off your anti-depressants or anti-anxiety pills for several days, when you come out you are coming out desperate," Fletcher said.
"We have a captured audience. Our goal ought to be to have a robust treatment program to help people have a normal life."
As sheriff, Fletcher said he would lobby the state to create a penny-a-pill tax on pharmaceuticals to fund treatment programs. He said he would push the county to merge its 500-bed pretrial jail with the county workhouse, where inmates serve short sentences, to slash administrative costs.
Fletcher was heavily criticized while sheriff for his role in pre-emptive home raids of protesters leading up to the 2008 Republican National Convention in St. Paul.
In 2009, state and federal agents found that the Metro Gang Strike Force that Fletcher helped create was rife with abuse, with officers routinely and improperly seizing valuables such as TVs, cars and cash from suspects and mishandling evidence. Fletcher's office was the strike force's fiscal agent at the time of the federal investigation. But he said he had left a leadership role with the strike force long before the problems started.
Fletcher has been on east metro ballots in one form or another for nearly four decades, starting when he won a bid for the St. Paul City Council in 1982 as a St. Paul police officer. He ran unsuccessfully for the Ramsey County Board in 2012, and was elected to the Vadnais Heights City Council in 2014 before being elected mayor in 2016.
He said he has no plans to run for mayor again, that his heart was in police work.
"I enjoy being the mayor, I think I'm doing a good job," Fletcher said. "But when I first became a police officer I knew that was my passion. People ought to work in an area where they can do the most good, and I can do the most good in the public safety arena."