There are many powerful voices calling for reconciliation and reform after a historically violent week in which Americans witnessed police killing black men in Minnesota and Louisiana, followed by a mass shooting that killed five officers in Dallas.
Amid the outpouring of frustration and grief that has followed, one of the more unlikely voices to capture people’s attention belongs to Lee Sjolander.
Sjolander is the police chief in Kenyon, Minn., a tidy, 2,000-person town that is 95 percent white, according to census data.
The town is one hour from Falcon Heights, Minn., where a police officer fatally shot a black driver on Wednesday night.
The chief may oversee a small-town department, but his organization boasts an outsize presence on Facebook, with more than 26,000 “likes.” Much of the credit for the page’s popularity goes to Sjolander, who fills the timeline with candid journal-like entries to local residents that range from deeply personal to delightfully playful.
“Sjolander’s posts all begin the same way, with a trail of ellipses: ‘Thoughts from Chief Sjolander …'” according to the Star Tribune. “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),” the paper adds.
As of this week, he also writes about race and healing.
On Friday, three days after the fatal police shooting of Alton Sterling in Baton Rouge, two days after the incident in Falcon Heights and a day after the attack in Dallas that left five officers dead, Sjolander wrote, “If I were your chief, and we worked for the same agency, serving the same great community, I would attend rollcall, and here is what I would say.”
What ensues is about 600 heartfelt words outlining what he expects from his officers. The message touches upon multiple themes, but at its core is a call for using authority primarily as a means of public service, one carried out “with a smile on your face, kindness in your heart, calmness in your soul, and a wave to those you see.”
“… remember,” he adds, “it’s not ‘us vs. them.'”
If I was your chief…
If I was your chief, and we worked for the same agency, serving the same great community, I would attend rollcall, and here is what I would say…
We have calls for service that we need to respond to. We have a grateful public that needs us, we have responsibilities… Yes, there are those out here who do not like us, or what we represent. It’s been that way long before I or you became officers, and it will be that way long after we’re gone.
I, as well as the public we serve have certain expectations, and we would all like them met when you can.
Here are just a few…
We expect you to be kind, we expect you to be fair, we expect you to be professional, and we expect you to do the best you can on every call for service.
We expect you to know the difference between the letter of the law, and the spirit of the law, and when to use your best discretion.
We expect you to leave people better than you found them when you can, and never take away someone’s dignity.
We expect you to be well-trained, and to know when, and when not to apply your training.
We expect you to be human. That means it’s ok to laugh, cry, and be scared at times.
I want you to remember why you chose to answer this public service calling. I hope it was to be part of something bigger than yourself, I hope it was to serve the public that we love, and I hope it was to build relationships with coworkers, as well as our public.
I hope you chose this calling because you love having a front row seat into the lives of people, love problem solving, and know that what you do makes your family and friends proud.
Yes, we are all sharing in some dark times right now. But, we still expect you to be brilliant at the basics and do your job to the best of your abilities.
As your chief, I also wanted to add these expectations. I expect you to patrol your areas with a smile on your face, kindness in your heart, calmness in your soul, and a wave to those you see.
I expect you to get out of your patrol car, and visit. I want you to listen to the compliments, the concerns, take them all in, and remember, it’s not “us vs. them.”
I expect you to show others that we are better than these tragedies and we are striving to be better in so many ways.
I expect you to be safe at work, and at home. I hope you visit with your family openly about the current state of our nation, and how if we give into fear, violence, propaganda, etc. we will not be part of the solution.
If you, or another member of our public service family is struggling, I expect you to get help, and I expect you to help others. I promise you, there is no shame in seeking help and being well.
I, as well as so many others are here for you. If you need me, I will be just a phone call, or radio call away.
I truly appreciate, and love each and everyone of you.
Sjolander’s message has been shared more than 1,500 times. It arrives several weeks after he returned from the White House, where he attended an invite-only event focused on 21st-century policing.
Sjolander, a father of three, wrote on Facebook that when he received his invitation over email, he initially assumed it was a hoax.
“I first thought the email was a joke or some sort of scam because why on earth would a small town police chief be invited to something like that,” he wrote. “I put my investigative skills to work, and found this was legitimate.”
“I was asked to dress ‘business casual’ for this event,” he added. “‘Business casual’ to me means penguin pajama pants, and a Metallica, or some other band T-shirt most days. Mrs. Chief and I went shopping and I would like to thank Brian from Men’s Wearhouse in Rochester for helping me find appropriate attire for this important event.”
Sjolander told the Star Tribune that he set up the department’s Facebook page in 2009 hoping to gather 500 likes. He speculated that his candid Facebook posts may have prompted the White House invitation.
“I’m not a fancy chief,” he said. “I go by my gut and my heart.”
So far, residents say, the heartfelt approach to policing appears to be working. They have urged him to turn his missives into a book and his posts attract readers from all over the world, according to the Star Tribune.
“Kenyon loves him and respects him and feels safe with him,” Hannah Bergstrom de Leon, Sjolander’s pastor at Minneola Lutheran Church, told the paper. “It’s a beautiful, beautiful thing.”