District 4 County Commissioner: Night to Unite: how safe is Dakota County?

Joe Atkins Dakota County Commissioner, District 4

Our sheriff’s office and local police departments, along with city and county prosecutors and community corrections staff, do a fine job. It was no surprise to me earlier this month when the National Association of Counties singled out Dakota County for its top national award in criminal justice and public safety. Dakota County earned this prestigious honor out of nearly 3,000 counties nationwide.

As a Dakota County Commissioner and a practicing attorney here for 26 years, I have gained a unique appreciation for the extensive efforts made to prevent crime and protect public safety in Dakota County.

Night to Unite on Tuesday, Aug. 7 calls attention to these efforts and offers a good opportunity to take a look at just how safe Dakota County really is.

Between the county attorney’s office, sheriff’s office and courts, Dakota County annually handles over 6,000 adult criminal cases, juvenile delinquency referrals, commitments, and DUI arrests in a typical year, while simultaneously supervising 10,000 probation offenders and operating the jail with more than 200 inmates. 

The good news is that the violent crime rate here in Dakota County is 34 percent lower than the statewide average, according to the most recent statistics compiled by the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension. 

The better news is in 2017 the total number of violent crime cases charged in Dakota County actually declined from 2016. There were 494 violent crime cases charged in 2016; this figure dropped to 480 cases in 2017.

Perhaps the best news of all is that juvenile cases are also noticeably down in Dakota County. In 2017, a total of 984 juvenile cases were charged, compared to 1,039 juvenile criminal cases in 2016. 

This does not mean we do not face challenges, however.

Drugs, for example, are a growing issue countywide. In 2017, the Dakota County Attorney’s Office prosecuted 902 felony and gross misdemeanor cases involving illegal drugs, an increase of more than 10 percent from the previous year.

A wide variety of drugs are illegally sold, possessed, or manufactured in Dakota County. The top five drug types charged in 2017 were:

Meth-related: 560 cases charged 

(464 in 2016)

Cocaine: 113 cases charged  

(79 in 2016)

Marijuana: 90 cases charged

(113 in 2016)

Prescriptions: 81 cases charged  

(90 in 2016)

Heroin: 46 cases charged  

(56 in 2016)

Methamphetamine is by far the largest illegal drug problem in Dakota County, and these cases increased by almost 21 percent from the previous year. According to a report from the county attorney’s office, much of the meth seized by Dakota County law enforcement agencies is produced in clandestine labs located in Mexico and transported into the U.S. and into Dakota County through well-organized criminal organizations.  

Meth is not the only drug of concern in Dakota County. Often the abuse of prescription medication leads to the use of other illegal street drugs such as heroin, with tragic consequences. According to the Medical Examiner there were at least 24 overdose deaths attributed to opioid or heroin abuse in Dakota County in 2017 (compared to 22 in 2016). By comparison, this is more than twice the number of traffic fatalities in Dakota County in 2017.

Like drug-related cases, electronic crimes are growing. Anyone with a mobile phone or computer has likely experienced countless fraud attempts and attempts to steal private data, through phishing, hacking or other schemes. These 21st century crimes are uniquely difficult to investigate, requiring advanced IT knowledge in addition to traditional police work.

Dakota County’s award-winning Electronic Crimes Unit, a collaboration among Dakota County and several local police departments, worked about 330 cases in 2017 and has experienced a 75% growth in its caseload since the unit was formed in 2015.

Public safety issues resulting from mental illness and chemical dependency issues are also getting more attention across Minnesota. About one in every three jail inmates in Dakota County has a mental illness, according to Sheriff Tim Leslie. This is one of the reasons the Sheriff’s Office consistently trains on methods for crisis intervention and de-escalation, and why the state legislature awarded Dakota County a grant to construct a regional training center in Inver Grove Heights that will train law enforcement officers from throughout our area in these methods. 

Finally, I am mindful of the fact that any violent crime is too much crime and remains a challenge. While our rate of violent crime may be 34 percent lower than the statewide average, I applaud local law enforcement, the county attorney’s office, and local neighborhoods for their ongoing efforts to reduce or prevent crime. In particular, I want to commend all the neighborhoods who are taking the time to gather on Aug. 7 for Night to Unite. This sends a strong message about how we look out for each other here in Dakota County, and is among the most important things individual residents can do to prevent crime in our local neighborhoods.


— Joe Atkins serves District 4 on the Dakota County Board of Commissioners, which covers portions of Inver Grove Heights, Eagan and Rosemount.

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