Meet Bob Fletcher: Ramsey County's most controversial cop

Ramsey County Sheriff fends off charges of cronyism

"He would go after things and not give up," says Jim Scheibel, who was a rookie councilmember that same year. "Bob just sometimes wouldn't let things go while on the council. He and I usually got along, but sometimes after he made his point, he just wouldn't let it go."

Seven years later, the two men found themselves squaring off on a larger public stage. Scheibel, a Democrat, and Fletcher, an Independent, ran against each other for mayor of St. Paul in 1989. The differences couldn't have been starker: Fletcher had prowled the streets as a hardened cop; the bookish Scheibel had canvassed the streets as community organizer. Fletcher perceived crime and corruption to be the biggest threats the city; Scheibel was most concerned with homelessness and hunger. Fletcher played football for Hamline; Scheibel would go on to teach there.

Because of his party affiliation, Scheibel was closely associated with Mayor Latimer, whose popularity was on the wane. Fletcher hammered on the connection. During debates, the former police officer fashioned himself as a change agent, an independent straight-shooter with no allegiance to the entrenched establishment.

Bob Fletcher, Ramsey County Sherrif
Nick Vlcek
Bob Fletcher, Ramsey County Sherrif

The strategy didn't quite work. On November 8, 1989, the citizens of St. Paul took to the polls and elected Scheibel by a margin of 12 percent, 56 to 44. Fletcher returned to the St. Paul Police Department disappointed, but undeterred. Now a lieutenant in the Juvenile Unit, he focused on gang prevention.

Three years in, Fletcher felt he was ready for a cross-departmental promotion—one that would require the voters' approval.

Fletcher's campaign for Ramsey County Sheriff in 1993 was, like his stab at the City Council, impeccably timed. For the first time in 60 years, the last two candidates standing were department outsiders. Fletcher had been a fixture of St. Paul. His gruff rival, Tony Bennett, was a U.S. Marshall and former state representative. It was anybody's race.

The public mood favored a law-and-order type with local, on-the-streets credentials. Violent crime in the metro was rising. In 1987, there were 12 murders in St. Paul. By 1992, that figure had jumped to 33. Across the river, the term "Murderapolis" had just been coined. Gangs, it seemed, were everywhere.

With his firsthand anecdotes about arresting drug dealers and working hand-in-hand with communities on gang prevention, Fletcher had a built-in advantage, and he wasn't above hyping the threat. "This is just a blip on the radar screen," he'd say in both debates and interviews. "We're about to hit a gigantic wave of crime."

Recognizing the political realities of Ramsey County, both Fletcher and Bennett ran as Democrats. But for Bennett, it was a harder sell: This was a guy who'd been an Independent-Republican as a state representative, and whom George H.W. Bush had tapped for the U.S. Marshall post.

At times, the campaign got nasty. Bennett remembers walking outside his house one morning and finding his water pipe bent. He couldn't help but wonder whether a Fletcher supporter had a hand in it.

"Someone had to have kicked it," says Bennett, now a Ramsey County commissioner. "I don't know who did it, but it's strange that the only damage to my house in 25 years came during that campaign."

Fletcher's biggest tactical advantage came from the rapport he established with the rank-and-file. During the months preceding the election, he gathered Ramsey County deputies in groups of five or six at various coffee shops and delis across town and laid out his vision for the department. He told them he wanted to "professionalize" it by adding more patrol units. At the time, the department centered mostly on jail operations; he wanted his men to take a more proactive approach to fighting crime.

The talks resonated with his prospective deputies, most of whom preferred in-the-field action to the dreary monotony of administrative chores. Also, his ambition and enthusiasm struck many as a sure indicator of competence. Their present boss, Sheriff Charles Zacharias, was much more laid back; that contrast alone was appealing.

"Fletcher was more of a go-getter than Zacharias," says retired deputy Mike Tatsak. "He had it in his mind to implement a lot of things, like hiring more Hmongs on board. And he was bigger on the cross-the-T's, dot-the-I's type of stuff."

In the last months of the campaign, about 70 Ramsey County deputies took up the cause, going door-to-door, handing out literature, and getting the word out for Fletcher.

On November 8, 1994, Fletcher was elected sheriff, capturing 58 percent of the vote. With a mandate from the electorate, Fletcher entered the Ramsey County Sheriff's Department with the added bonus of having the majority of subordinates onboard with his ambitious agenda from Day One.

But that nearly unanimous support wouldn't last long.

   

AT FIRST DEPUTY Mike Burke didn't know what to make of Fletcher.

A decorated 15-year veteran in the sheriff's department, Burke understood and accepted the political realities that came with the job. When a new sheriff came in, it was common to appoint trusted intimates—acquaintances made in other departments, or while coming up the ranks—to the inner circle.

But with Fletcher, it was beyond anything Burke had seen before.

"Other sheriffs didn't bring it down to the deputy ranks," says Burke. "Fletcher did. Unless you were a part of his political machine, you got nowhere. The only way you could move up was by selling your soul."

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