Before Police Chief Lee Sjolander packed his new blue blazer and boarded a plane for the White House Wednesday morning, he made sure to check in with his loyal followers.
There are more than 24,000 of them, and they keep up with Sjolander through the Kenyon Police Department’s Facebook page. Kenyon, about 50 miles south of the Twin Cities, has fewer than 2,000 residents.
The police chief’s posts — sometimes quirky, sometimes serious, always deeply personal — earned Sjolander a reputation as an officer on the cutting edge of social media.
On Thursday Sjolander, a first-time visitor to Washington, D.C., will attend an invite-only event at the White House on 21st-century policing.
When Sjolander got the e-mail invite a few weeks ago, he took it as a hoax but shot back an RSVP anyway.
“I figured it was a joke or scam, thinking, ‘Who would want to invite a small-town chief?’ ” Sjolander said by phone Wednesday, soon after landing in D.C.
He suspects his devotion to the Facebook page has something to do with his invite.
He launched the department’s Facebook page in 2009, cobbling together a few posts and hoping for 500 likes.
Seven years and one unofficial like contest with the Duluth Police Department later and the page has amassed nearly 50 times his initial goal.
Sjolander’s posts all begin the same way, with a trail of ellipses: “Thoughts from Chief Sjolander …”
What comes next depends on the day and whom Sjolander encounters.
He writes about rescuing tiny lost dogs, issuing “citations” for free ice cream to kids wearing their bike helmets and interrogating lemonade-stand vendors peddling their beverage without a permit. (But not without tossing them 50 cents for a Styrofoam cup of their sweet brew).
“I’m not a fancy chief,” said Sjolander, who’s known as “Officer Lee” and shares the town’s policing duties with the three other full-time officers he oversees. “I go by my gut and my heart.”
Several readers have urged the chief to collect his posts into a book.
“The way he’s able to personalize writing and relate it to helping people and animals — that’s really what drives people to read his stories,” said Mark Vahlsing, Kenyon’s city administrator.
Residents can’t remember the last time there was a murder, but the town isn’t without its troubles. A June 27 post, for instance, details the chief’s response to a complaint about a squatter. When Sjolander arrived on the scene, he found two blue blankets and a water bottle but no squatter.
He posted a picture of the items and wrote, “I’m sorry things appear to not be going well for you … While my heart breaks for you, I have to tell you that you cannot stay here.”
Sjolander thinks he knows the unnamed person, and suspects he reads his Facebook posts, so he offered him new blankets and some food.
This kind of gesture isn’t unusual for Sjolander, Vahlsing said. The police chief also once welcomed a homeless man into his home, who stayed for several months until finding work.
His posts attract fans from around the world and also entice normally anti-Facebook readers closer to home, including the town mayor, who has to piggyback on his daughter’s Facebook account to read the chief’s musings.
“I have met people when I go to out-of-town events that say, ‘Oh, yes, I’ve been following your police chief on Facebook,’ ” Mayor Mike Engel said. “He’s been doing a really good job here.”
Commenters agree, thanking Officer Lee for his buoyant spirit and empathy.
There’s the post that recounts the time he paid $8.79 for ground beef on behalf of the shopper in front of him who was counting out the payment in change. He reminds all not to toe-tap impatiently in such situations and suggests those who can to pay it forward. Or the post from June 23, when a couple of young jewelers raising money for a family vacation marched right into his office unannounced. They left with $10 and he got his money’s worth in handmade friendship bracelets. “Good things happen when police departments have an ‘Open Door’ policy,” he noted.
“Kenyon loves him and respects him and feels safe with him,” said Hannah Bergstrom de Leon, Sjolander’s pastor at Minneola Lutheran Church. “It’s a beautiful, beautiful thing.”
The police chief returns to Kenyon Friday morning. His wife and three children await his return, and his five-piece cover band, the Local Hooligans, booked a gig for this weekend, and he needs to be back to play percussion.
Until then, Sjolander said he plans to post updates from the nation’s capital, signing each entry with the same farewell — it’s also what he tells people on patrol: Stay safe.