Beltrami Co. Sheriff Phil Hodapp Stresses Cooperation, Communication

Jack Swenson

“Our job,” Phil Hodapp says simply, is to “save lives, prevent crimes and be there when help is needed.”

Last year Beltrami County’s top law enforcement officer says his department logged 18,782 calls for service. They responded to nearly 400 accidents, 482 medical emergencies, pulled 332 drivers off the road, many of them to face charges of driving while intoxicated.

From his office in the Law Enforcement Center in Bemidji Hodapp offered a chart showing the drop in the number of burglaries, assaults and thefts from 2007 to 2008. Two years ago, when he took office as sheriff, Hodapp instituted more of what he terms a pro-active approach, encouraging officers to engage in more contact with individuals.

Photo By Jack Swenson From his office in the Law Enforcement Center, Beltrami County Sheriff Phil Hodapp has a view of the other county buildings — the administrative offices, the judicial building housing courtrooms and the jail, as well as the old courthouse which now houses different county agencies.

“We don’t claim that this is the only reason we’ve seen a reduction,” he said during a wide-ranging interview, “but it has to have helped.”

The county maintains a force that when fully staffed includes 37 deputies-all licensed peace officers-and an equal number of correctional officers including bailiffs and jail guards, and support staff that includes those on duty as dispatchers for the 911 emergency system.

Across the street from the Law Enforcement Center, which shares space with the Bemidji City Police Department, is the Beltrami County jail. Crowded since it was built to house 66 inmates, that number was quickly boosted to 83 with double-bunking. Today it can accommodate 172 men and women with 60 beds in the minimum security section. “It’s not a four-star hotel, and it’s not a place I’d want to stay,” observed a visitor.

Prisoners move from the jail to the adjacent courts building via an underground tunnel. Guards patrol the court rooms, and watch prisoners on video screens covering jail areas. “It’s all analog, but we’re able to keep it working,” a supervisor said, adding that the equipment had most likely been used even before it was installed in the jail more than 20 years ago.

In addition to overseeing security in three law enforcement areas and the courthouse complex, the sheriff is also responsible for coordinating the work of a half-dozen volunteer groups. These include the Community Guard members who patrol the infrastructure, the mounted posse aiding in search and rescue, First Responder organizations, the Civil Air Patrol ( a separate group that works under the ‘umbrella’ of the sheriff’s office on search and rescue operations) and the citizen’s patrol working within Bemidji.

Hodapp gives special recognition to the Paul Bunyan Amateur Radio Club, which provides invaluable help in search and rescue work, setting up and maintaining a mobile communications facility to aid in coordinating various law enforcement agencies that are involved in the operation.

From Brook Lake Township in the southeast corner to Big Grass Township in the northwest, a distance of 98.6 miles, Beltrami County’s 3,000 square miles are home to 43,320 people, including those living on the Red Lake Reservation. Since only tribal police and federal agents have authority at Red Lake, county enforcement generally ends at the reservation borders. As a result, those residents, while on the reservation, remain the only Beltrami County persons outside the jurisdiction of county officers.

(Ironically, while the reservation is off-limits to the sheriff and deputies, those living there are still allowed to vote for the sheriff and as well as other county and state officials.)

Hodapp was elected to a four-year term as sheriff in 2006 after many years working with other police agencies. After attending Mankato State College, he worked as a dispatcher and jailer with the sheriff’s office in St. Peter, then moved to Texas in 1976 with the Amarillo police department. Two years later he joined the Texas Department of Public Safety, staying there until 1985 when he moved back to Minnesota with the state Bureau of Criminal Apprehension.

“I was based here in Bemidji, but mostly I was living in hotels or motels or even campgrounds, and we were chasing after guys in Chicago and El Paso and after a while it got a little tiresome.”

Hodapp’s assignment covered the northern half of Minnesota, and that got him deeply involved in the case of Katie Poirier, a young woman murdered in Moose Lake in 1999. DNA evidence from a single tooth helped in the eventual apprehension and conviction of Donald Blom, now serving a life sentence.

Less successful was the hunt for the man who raped and murdered Anita Carlson in 1987. The waitress worked at a restaurant west of Bemidji, and her murder remains unsolved. A framed poster offering a $50,000 reward remains on a stand in the corner of Hodapp’s spartan office, as a reminder that even cold cases are not forgotten.

He talks of these cases sitting around a small table surrounded by four straight chairs. On his desk nearby a computer links him to department activity. His uniform is barely distinguishable from those of other officers. He carries his own mug of coffee from the ‘break room’ further down the hall.

On one wall, a number of plaques testify to his law enforcement career, and near them a photograph illustrates Hodapp’s interest in police work. It dates to his father’s work as a Minnesota state highway patrol trooper, and is carried to the third generation with Hodapp’s son, Jake. Jake is a deputy sheriff, but actually has seniority on his father: Jake was a deputy for two years before Phil left the BCA and was elected sheriff.

Hodapp’s wife, Marilynne, is a teacher at St. Phillips in Bemidji. They were married in 1979 and have four children — Kristy, Jake, Kate and Tim. Kristy (Ryan) McCrady has three children and Jake and his wife, two. The Hodapp’s daughter, Kate, is attending school in Duluth and will go into nursing. Tim is at BSU and will go into the Marine Corps when he graduates.

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