Several months before he officially announced a comeback campaign for Ramsey County Sheriff, Bob Fletcher began planting doubts about his rival in the same aggressive manner that had earned him a reputation as a controversial law enforcement figure.
But following his election victory over incumbent Jack Serier to regain the post he had held for 16 years, Fletcher promised to bridge gaps.
“The spirit of compromise and team building that I’m accustomed to … really has evaporated,” he said over a lunch repeatedly interrupted by admirers who stopped by to wish him well. “I’m trying to restore that.”
Fletcher will retake the Ramsey County Sheriff’s Office on Jan. 7, earning an annual salary of $163,818. The department of approximately 479 employees — 234 of them sworn officers — has a budget of $60 million next year.
Fletcher’s top goals are building trust between the public and police in the wake of officer-involved shootings and hiring deputies from nontraditional backgrounds — such as teachers and social workers — who don’t have degrees in law enforcement but possess qualities such as good judgment and commitment to the community. He also wants to fully implement body cameras by the end of 2019, an effort Serier had already started.
While many community members are open to giving Fletcher’s return the benefit of the doubt, his monthslong criticism of Serier and Fletcher’s long-running Center for Somali History Studies and annual seminar about the Somali community and terrorism still upset some.
“I don’t like the tactics he used to get elected,” said Dianne Binns, president of the St. Paul NAACP. “The fear tactics that are going on in politics, I think, are a disservice to the community.”
Fletcher won by a comfortable margin, surprising himself by earning 53 percent of the vote compared to Serier’s 47 percent. Neither he nor Serier would venture to guess how much Fletcher’s criticisms of Serier affected the outcome; some community leaders said name recognition from Fletcher’s long history in law enforcement, former seat on the St. Paul City Council and recent tenure as Vadnais Heights mayor was likely the main factor in his win.
The Ramsey County Board appointed Serier, a veteran officer but relative newcomer to the public eye, to replace former Sheriff Matt Bostrom — who ousted Fletcher in 2010 — following Bostrom’s early retirement in 2017.
Fletcher immediately got to work, showing up the day after his victory at the Tin Cup’s in St. Paul to promise owner Gidget Bailey that he would install deputies in a makeshift office in the basement of her restaurant and bar. The move convinced Bailey to rescind her threat to vacate the 1220 Rice St. location due to several recent shootings in the area.
“I think that gives our community a sense of safety,” Bailey said. “I think it’s the new beginning of change.”
Fletcher aligned himself with key community leaders and activists in the weeks that followed.
“I hear people say, ‘Don’t talk to Bob Fletcher,’ ” said John Thompson, who became an activist after a police officer shot and killed his best friend, Philando Castile, in 2016. “But I decided to figure out for myself.”
Fletcher reached out to Thompson, who supported Serier, and the two met recently to discuss topics ranging from reforming incarceration to restoring felons’ right to vote.
Thompson said the meeting convinced him that Fletcher shared some of his values. Binns, a Serier supporter, acknowledged that under his previous tenure as sheriff, Fletcher allowed the NAACP to enter the county jail and workhouse to register inmates to vote and permitted its leaders to meet with inmates at any time of the day or night to address a variety of concerns.
Perhaps Fletcher’s most strategic move was pulling former St. Paul Police Chief Bill Finney out of retirement and appointing him as undersheriff of community relations, earning strong points with community members who respect and trust Finney. The maneuver, Fletcher said, was a year in the making.
Fletcher and Finney ran an acrimonious race against each other for the Ramsey County Sheriff’s Office in 2006 during which Fletcher reopened a 25-year-old unsolved homicide case involving a victim and suspect that were both Finney’s friends.
“He showed growth by reaching out to Finney,” said Tyrone Terrill, president of the African-American Leadership Council.
The two were diplomatic about their former rivalry in recent interviews, with Fletcher calling his comments from the race “campaign rhetoric” and Finney boiling it down to “politics.” Both said they maintained a civil, professional relationship afterward.
“He ran the race that he thought he should … and it worked for him,” Finney said of the 2006 campaign. “Bob used to work for me at the St. Paul Police Department. He was one of my commanders. Now I work for him.”
A law enforcement veteran
Fletcher began his law enforcement career by joining St. Paul police in 1977. He was first elected Ramsey County Sheriff in 1994, and returned to St. Paul police after losing his re-election bid to Bostrom.
As sheriff, Fletcher led the raids of several buildings across St. Paul and Minneapolis during the 2008 Republican National Convention that were criticized for their show of force. He also appointed the county’s first black undersheriff, and was known for outreach efforts in the Hmong-American community. He recently appointed deputy Chy Nou Lee to the role of inspector in his new administration, making Lee the state’s highest ranking Hmong-American officer, according to Fletcher.
Fletcher said the loss to Bostrom taught him not to criticize the sitting sheriff.
“It was his time to be sheriff,” Fletcher said of Bostrom. “Clearly, that wasn’t the case when Jack was appointed.”
Fletcher said Serier’s appointment motivated him to make a run for sheriff. Fletcher filed a complaint with St. Paul police accusing Serier of not living in the county at the time of his appointment, filing a 19-page document that included utility bills from a home Serier had in Stillwater and pictures of Serier with his family. He sharply criticized Serier’s investigation of a school threat and gun case that led to the arrest of a Vadnais Heights couple and their then 13-year-old son, which eventually resulted in the dismissal of the most serious case due to authorities’ misidentification of evidence in the case. Fletcher was Vadnais Heights mayor at the time.
The pain was still evident in a recent interview with Serier. He said Fletcher’s attacks were “extremely hard” on his family.
“It is extremely hurtful to have people misrepresent you as a person, and to misrepresent your organization,” Serier said. “I would never do that.”
Serier plans to return to St. Paul police in an yet-to-be-determined role; it’s where he was working when Bostrom hired him into his administration.
“What I’m really interested in is service,” Serier said.
While Fletcher’s appointment of Finney has been praised, it hasn’t escaped some community leaders that he also failed to hold onto the sheriff’s highest-ranking black deputy, undersheriff Booker Hodges. He is only the second black deputy to reach the rank of undersheriff in the department’s history, and is widely credited by community members for helping to recruit diverse candidates into the office.
Hodges said he didn’t hear from Fletcher after the election, and decided to take a leave effective Nov. 30 to become interim police chief in Prior Lake. His last day with the sheriff’s office is Dec. 31.
“It’s just different directions, different philosophies,” Hodges said. “If Jack would’ve won, I wouldn’t have gone anywhere.”