When Dawanna Witt teaches her juvenile justice class at Inver Hills Community College, the high-ranking Hennepin County Sheriff's Office administrator occasionally tells stories about a little girl. Sometimes Witt is explicit about the details of the little girl's life. Other times, she's more vague, because the details can be harrowing and difficult to stomach.
The little girl's family life was scarred by alcoholism and drug addiction.
The little girl remembers police officers being called to her home and telling her and her siblings they would grow up to become crackheads like others in their family.
The little girl had male family members who were sexual predators, and in response, she didn't take care of her hygiene. Being smelly and dirty, the little girl figured, would make her less of a target, even if it also meant she was bullied in school.
The little girl had her first baby at 15, moved out of her family home and into a shelter.
In her class filled with future police officers, Witt tells this little girl's story in lessons about implicit bias: What assumptions do we make about this little girl? How can the stereotypes we have as police officers be harmful for the communities we serve? How can we check our biases at the door?
When Witt tells her students about this little girl, she'll ask them to guess what became of her. They usually guess the little girl ended up in jail or dead.
What Witt doesn't always tell her classes is that this little girl was her.
A Black woman has never ascended to the highest levels of Minnesota law enforcement. Powerful people believe the 47-year-old Witt could become the first.
"She will be the first Black female chief of police or sheriff in the state of Minnesota, and I would put money on that," said Dave Bellows, the retired sheriff of Dakota County, where Witt worked for nearly two decades.
Witt's presence in law enforcement's upper ranks personifies a shift in American policing in recent years as the field has recognized the importance of diversity of life experience. Other major American cities, such as Philadelphia, Dallas, Seattle and Louisville, have named their first Black female police chiefs in recent years. But race and gender discrepancies remain stark: About 12% of the nation's local police officers are women, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, and 3% are Black women. More balance, some believe, would help police relate to communities of color.
Now, Witt supervises 500 employees at the Hennepin County Sheriff's Office as the major in charge of the courts and the jail. Witt has family members and friends who no longer speak with her because she is in law enforcement. Sometimes, when she's in uniform, random people yell she's a race traitor, or that she's not Black. The response from this grandmother of two is generally this: "What would this profession be like if we were not here?"
Witt represents a bridge: Someone who connects the badge with communities of color, someone whose lived experience and professional background make her a template for a more empathetic future for law enforcement.
"She can talk with people on all different levels," Bellows said. "Not everybody can do that."
"People like Dawanna in leadership positions in law enforcement open it up for real change," said Hennepin County Sheriff Dave Hutchinson. "We're changing how we police from the inside to better serve the public — not just Black people, but people like her doing the right thing at the right times."
The first big door that opened in her career was at a school, helping kids like her.
"Some kiddos just go down a really bad path, and Dawanna could just talk to them in their language," said Rachel Novy, a teacher at the Dakota County school for children with physical, emotional and behavioral difficulties where Witt once worked as a school resource officer. "She was almost looked at as a mom. She'd share her own personal background and struggles, and she'd tell them, 'I know it's hard, but you can do it.' "
Charlotte Olson vividly remembers one day at Thompson Heights School in South St. Paul when a fight broke out. Olson was teaching at the alternative school, and Witt was a Dakota County sheriff's deputy there. It was a moment when things could have quickly spiraled out of control.
One high school student dissed another student's family. The kids were involved in gangs. Students quickly gathered. For a moment, time stood still. It was the most scared Olson had ever been in her job. She spotted Witt at the other end of the hall.
"She literally came in like a lightning bolt," Olson recalled. "Once she got their attention, it was like, bam. It stopped them in their tracks."
After individual talks with Witt, then a reconciliation meeting, the kids never got in trouble again, Olson said.
These interactions were common for Witt. If she had to write a citation, she'd pin the citation on a bulletin board and tell the student they could rip it up if they maintained good grades. She became a de facto counselor.
"Before she got there, there were all kinds of kids getting charged with crimes, suspensions, fights, all that," said Steven Prioleau, a juvenile probation officer in Dakota County. "She got there and all that stuff calmed down. She could see it in kids: 'Oh, he's not going to have a good day.' She'd give me a heads-up when she was seeing kids in crisis — not going off yet, but about to blow. Sometimes a pep talk from Dawanna was all they needed."
When Witt was growing up — first in Chicago, then in Minneapolis' inner-ring suburbs — becoming a cop was the last thing she expected. To her, police meant something bad: They showed up when bad things happened, but they never solved her problems. She was a mama bear who protected her four siblings. But she often felt invisible.
"I always tell people I'm not looking for the obvious — I'm looking for the not-so-obvious," she said. "I often remind myself about who I was as a little kid, just wishing someone could see me. I want to be that cop who could have reached out."
After Witt moved into a shelter with her baby daughter, she finished school: first high school — with honors — then a bachelor's, then a master's. Without the help of a Hennepin County social worker named Maggie Keating, she believes she never would have become the first in her family to graduate from college.
"I'm trying to be a Maggie to other people," Witt said of Keating. "That one person changed the course of my life."
Out of college, married with two kids and working in social services, she and a probation officer friend took a tour of the jail. A deputy mentioned they needed more women of color. She applied, but she figured there was no way she'd get the jailer job when they learned about her family history.
Her mother had a longstanding drug habit she kicked later in life. Today, Witt empathizes with her mother's travails: An addict, a domestic violence victim, "a survivor, a hustler," Witt said. She learned empathy for her father, too, a functional alcoholic and Vietnam veteran Witt believes suffered from PTSD. Now, she looks at that childhood as her greatest strength.
"My past doesn't have to be bad unless I let it be," Witt said.
During the trial of fired Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin, Witt went on downtown walks. She'd check in with deputies and National Guard soldiers near the courthouse, and she'd talk with protesters. Witt listened. She answered questions. She talked about the importance of police recognizing their biases; even when those biases are implicit and unintentional, people in the community can still sense them, and those biases can be misconstrued as racism. When protesters tell her there are no good cops in a racist system, she complicates their black-and-white views with some gray.
"I absolutely understand when I hear people say they don't like or trust police," Witt said. "I've experienced that. When I'm out there and I'm dealing with people, it's so important for me to be me and not forget where I came from."
In a profession historically dominated by white men, she's become used to being a lonely voice. She'll tell white colleagues and superiors stories of experiencing racism in the hope that it will open their eyes to things they've never personally felt.
"You gotta go in there knowing that you'll have resistance, but you gotta hope that somebody catches on to something," she said.
She knows law enforcement needs reform. She knows some police officers don't believe systemic racism exists or that racial profiling is a thing.
One of her firmest beliefs: Officers shouldn't be afraid to show their humanity.
"I've been told by a lot of people in law enforcement, 'You tell people too much.' No, I don't. People need to know we're human, too. I didn't get in this to be a robot. I don't want to be a robot. If you don't have feelings, there's something wrong with you."