The Hennepin County Sheriff's Office major who supervises the county's courts and jail system has been named one of eight recipients for a national award for Black law enforcement officials.

Dawanna Witt, 48, will receive the Black History Month Excellence in Law Enforcement Award in a virtual ceremony in February.

The awards are presented by the Police Studies Institute at St. Elizabeth University in New Jersey.

The institute is known for providing leadership education for law enforcement and public safety professionals as well as serving as a forum for public policy discussions and analysis.

Early in her career, Witt thrived as a school resource officer at a Dakota County alternative school for children with physical, emotional and behavioral difficulties. There, she used her own difficult past to connect and empathize with children. Witt grew up in a troubled family scarred by sexual abuse and drug and alcohol addiction. She had her first baby at 15 and moved out of her home and into a shelter.

Now, she supervises 500 employees at Hennepin County's courts and jail. She also teaches juvenile justice at Inver Hills Community College.

"She is exactly the future of policing," said William Schievella, director of the Police Studies Institute. "Law enforcement can be afraid of change, that change is negative. I don't look at it that way. Because policing used to look like me, more of an exclusive club, but policing needs to be more diverse, more inclusive. She's not the only cop of color, not the only cop to come from a difficult home experience. But she's able to take all those factors and make it into a positive thing, and at same time, she is able to be a strong leader."

Many in law enforcement believe Witt will soon become Minnesota's first Black female police chief, as retired Dakota County sheriff Dave Bellows predicted in an April 2021 Star Tribune story about Witt.

Witt believes her lived experience helps her connect with all walks of people, which she says is a key ingredient to successful modern policing.

"Why do I police the way I do?" Witt said this week, after the award was announced. "I believe in wearing my heart on my sleeve. We do better when we can empathize with what other people are going through. I try to lead by example."

The recognition comes at a time when Witt, as a Black woman in law enforcement, finds herself at the crossroads of a cultural battle being fought since George Floyd's murder by a Minneapolis police officer in 2020.

"One of most difficult things is when you're judged, whether it be by your race or your profession," Witt added. "It takes more time to do it, but just talk to people. Learn about that person. We are facing so much right now in this profession. It's so much easier just to listen to the negatives. But you gotta know your purpose, and I know my purpose."