Hennepin County commissioners asked the county's law enforcement officials Thursday how they plan to avoid the problems dealing with people of color that are troubling the Minneapolis police.

Several said they were concerned that the Sheriff's Office may be forced to handle the work not done by the police, or at least cover for the department's perceived lack of responsiveness.

Commissioner Jan Callison wanted reassurances that the Sheriff's Office would follow different policies and procedures from the Minneapolis police, who have been criticized for brutality and lax discipline. Several City Council members are calling for the department's defunding or even abolition.

Sheriff Dave Hutchinson and other leaders told the County Board about his office's initiatives to train deputies, control COVID-19 in the jails and provide medication for inmates with drug addiction. Hutchinson said there have been only five use-of-force complaints filed against the Sheriff's Office in nearly three years.

"In the Sheriff's Office, we work really to have an outstanding culture as far as use of force," said Chief Deputy Tracey Martin. "We hire and train outstanding people who understand our culture of dignity and respect for all the people we serve."

Commissioner Angela Conley asked if the sheriff was planning to require anti-racism training and if the office's budget next year would include more community-based options that go beyond typical law enforcement practices.

Commissioner Debbie Goettel praised the Sheriff's Office for new policies of not charging inmates for phone calls and expediting the DNA backlog in a variety of cases. Commissioner Irene Fernando said she supported placing a social worker in the 911 dispatch center to help employees.

Commissioner Jeff Johnson said there was no tougher job right now than public safety, but added he didn't want the Sheriff's Office to "get sucked into the mess that is Minneapolis right now."

Johnson said the number of inmates in the county jail is at its lowest since 1985 and asked how that could be during a major crime wave in Minneapolis.

"Cops in Minneapolis don't feel they have support from its political leaders," he said. "Do sheriff's deputies feel supported by the County Board?"

Conley wanted to know specifics about how the Sheriff's Office is working with the Minneapolis police to handle problems such as drag racing on Park and Portland avenues and the homeless encampments in Powderhorn Park.

When she asked how the Sheriff's Office might re-evaluate its budget request for 2021, Johnson said the agency shouldn't include items that deal with social issues.

"I want to see a public safety budget," he said. "We will do a social service budget. I hear about people spitting on officers and they don't show up when we need them. We need to support the good cops trying to protect us."

David Chanen • 612-673-4465