There’s a new sheriff in the Mississippi River city of Newport — and he’s not a police chief.
By a 3-2 vote, the City Council abolished its police force Thursday evening. Instead, it will contract with the Washington County Sheriff’s Office for law enforcement. Newport’s five officers will begin working for Sheriff Bill Hutton on Jan. 1.
“The simple matter is, Newport isn’t large enough to support its own police department, 24/7,” said Council Member Dan Lund, who argued the city of about 3,550 people was paying far more for policing per resident than the adjoining cities of Woodbury and Cottage Grove.
The city has been reeling over disclosures of scandalous behavior by some former officers and a discovery that an unsecured evidence room was a mess.
Some council members called for an investigation into police practices — the Dakota County sheriff will begin it next year — after a Washington County sheriff’s inspection uncovered evidence in disarray and problems with investigations, training and policies.
The end of the police department means Newport joins 14 other Washington County cities and six townships where the sheriff provides law enforcement.
Hutton said Friday all five Newport officers will continue working in Newport. “They will be continuing in their blue uniforms, continuing to drive the Newport squad cars for awhile,” said Hutton, who’s aware that some residents think their city will lose personal connections when their city officers become county deputies.
“I would recommend that anyone concerned about that reach out to those other cities,” he said of places such as Hugo, Lake Elmo, Afton and Mahtomedi that are under contract with the sheriff. “We’re very community-oriented, we’re very community-involved. We have great relationships with each of these cities.”
Hutton, a former Oakdale police captain, recently was described by County Commissioner Gary Kriesel as a throwback to earlier times when community relations were seen as a cop’s best friend.
“It’s like a badge of honor. I am ‘old school,’ ” agreed Hutton, who pointed to initiatives such as Coffee With a Cop, Citizens Academy and summer barbecues in cities where his office patrols.
Newport’s agreement with the county will cost $696,498 in 2016 — and the city expects to save $334,048 over the next two years by giving up its police department.
“The economies of scale provided by the Sheriff’s Department could result in better services in some areas, for example investigations, than the city could expect to receive from its currently staffed, autonomous police department,” the city resolution said.
“Over the next two years, this is the best move,” said Mayor Tim Geraghty, who said the city could reconsider after that time.
The Sheriff’s Office will add a full-time patrol sergeant, but also the resources of the entire department including investigations, Hutton said.
This fall, the Sheriff’s Office has been cleaning and organizing Newport’s police evidence room to professional standards, he said. An inspection revealed that 14 confiscated weapons were missing, sexual-assault test results were contaminated and property relating to 1,138 cases wasn’t tracked, Hutton wrote in a November report to Deb Hill, the Newport city administrator.
The Sheriff’s Office discovered those problems under a temporary contract with Newport, which expires Dec. 31. In addition, the city suspended two Newport officers — one after being caught having sex while on duty in a city public works office and another seen going through Hill’s desk in City Hall.
Hutton said the Sheriff’s Office is committed to policing Newport in the same personal way that residents came to expect with their city police over the past 100 years.
“There’s been a lot of misinformation out there,” he said. “We’re going to plug ahead and do our job.”