‘Different worlds’: Chauvin trial plays differently in rural Minn.

‘Different worlds’: Chauvin trial plays differently in rural Minn.

WASECA – When Doug Gerdts was growing up on a Waseca County farm, he heard stories about Great-uncle Don. Don Eustice had been the sheriff until he was shot and killed in 1976 while conducting a welfare check.

Gerdts never met his great-uncle, but Eustice was a legend in the boy’s mind. In family lore, the sheriff played by his own rules. He would take in a troubled youth instead of putting him in jail. He once brought his sons to a grocery store robbery and had the 8-year-old dust for fingerprints.

In the two decades Gerdts has worked as a sheriff’s deputy in Waseca County, things have changed in law enforcement. And tension from incidents like George Floyd’s death, which happened an hour’s drive north, have reverberated even in this rural expanse of farms, lakes and prairie.

One thing about the job, however, stays the same: Law enforcement officers here are people, neighbors, not some anonymous badge.

“Our county is 20,000 people, and I probably recognize 10,000 faces,” Gerdts said on a recent evening as he drove down Hwy. 13. “I grab a cup of coffee at Kwik Trip and I’m stopped by four people who just want to talk.”

The 10 months since Floyd’s death have been chaotic for law enforcement in the Twin Cities. There have been protests and riots and an unprecedented number of officers leaving the Minneapolis force amid cratering morale. Even with an increase in crime, activists have called to reform police or defund police or abolish police altogether.

In rural areas of greater Minnesota, it’s a different story. Instead of calls for police reform, there’s been a groundswell of support. Instead of frequent protests, rural sheriffs tell of frequent boxes of thank-you doughnuts. Instead of being caricatured as villains, small-town police are hailed as heroes.

The differences around police-community relationships are easy to explain, Gerdts said: In the Twin Cities, anonymity breeds mistrust. In small towns, recognition breeds mutual respect.

“I work where I grew up,” Gerdts said. “I don’t want to have my mom hearing something in church about her son being a jerk.”

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The protests and rioting after Floyd’s death were particularly resonant in Waseca County, which had just experienced its own traumatic moment involving police officers. In January 2020, Waseca police officer Arik Matson was shot in the head responding to a call. The assailant was sentenced to 35 years in prison, but Matson, a married father of two young girls, continues his long recovery.

Matson’s shooting brought an outpouring of community support. All over the region, homeowners displayed blue lights. “Matson Strong” T-shirt sales benefited the family. A parade welcomed Matson back after nearly 10 months in the hospital and a rehabilitation center. A fundraiser scheduled for May 22 continues the community’s embrace of the family.

After last year’s protests and riots in the Twin Cities, public support for law enforcement in places like Waseca seemed only to rise.

“Our kids go to school with their kids, we live here, we go to the same churches,” said Waseca County Sheriff Brad Milbrath. “I’d like to think if we had something that a deputy or officer did bad, people would come forward and talk with us about it. I couldn’t go a day without someone coming up to me and saying, ‘What the hell did this guy do that for?’?”

When a friend died by suicide, it was Milbrath who knocked on the man’s parents’ door. When Milbrath encountered a man he’d once arrested for stealing a car, it wasn’t a tense moment; the man laughed and challenged Milbrath to a footrace.

Perhaps this cordial relationship can be expected in places with small populations.

But there are other reasons.

A recent poll by Echelon Insights indicated the two most important concerns for Republican voters nationwide are illegal immigration and lack of support for law enforcement. Waseca County, part of a Republican stronghold in southern Minnesota, voted 64% for President Donald Trump in 2020.

The Waseca area also has a history of high-profile, gut-wrenching crimes: the 1999 murder of 12-year-old Cally Jo Larson, the 2007 murders of a 13-year-old son and his father, the foiled 2014 bombing plot at Waseca High School. Perhaps, local residents wonder, these crimes have underscored the importance of law enforcement here.

One other factor may be race. Like much of rural Minnesota, this county is homogeneous; Waseca County is 95% white. Historical, institutionalized, big-city issues between police and minorities simply don’t register here.

“It’s two different worlds, with just the sheer number of people in Minneapolis,” said Joe Hoehn, a lifelong resident who owns The Mill, an event venue in Waseca. “I have friends living in the Cities and they don’t know the people living on their own block. … Systemic racism, it doesn’t apply here. Because we know each other.”

That’s not to say Floyd’s death didn’t stir up emotions. Waseca saw several protests. But organizers directed protests at societal issues Floyd’s death brought up, not at local police. The sheriff’s biggest concern wasn’t the protesters themselves but instead the occasional local who drove by and antagonized them.

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Waseca’s thriving downtown strip is filled with local businesses, with the down-home Pheasant Cafe across from the upscale Trio Wine Cafe. Police pass out treats on Halloween and host a summer event at the water park. When Police Chief Penny Vought crosses the street, her real estate agent stops her with an update on the house Vought is trying to buy.

“We wave to every cop, just like a head nod to a neighbor,” said Bernie Gaytko, CEO and president of First National Bank of Waseca. “There’s so many examples of cops and first responders being first on the scene, domestic issues, car accidents. People wanted to judge and rule and convict the day that George Floyd thing happened. My first reaction was let’s just wait, hear all the facts of the case and not jump to any conclusions.”

Ten miles down Hwy. 14 in Janesville, Jim Fury streamed the murder trial of former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin on a recent afternoon at Fury’s Barber Shop, which his father founded just after World War II. He’s a chatty guy. Floyd’s death and the aftermath have been a frequent topic of conversation. Some older clients have said Floyd was a criminal and had it coming. Fury pushes back.

“I’ll say, ‘Wait a minute — he didn’t deserve to die,’?” Fury said.

But the vast majority of his clients “ache for the guy,” Fury said of Floyd. People in rural Minnesota, however, don’t understand the fallout after his death, Fury said: How did rioting help? Why did Chauvin’s actions become an indictment of all police? And why so much focus on Floyd’s death while several shootings of children in the Twin Cities have been blips on the radar?

“Everyone I’ve talked to realized George Floyd did not have to die,” he said. “However, everyone does not understand why he was put in the status of a hero. … I feel bad for cops, but I then feel bad for people who are victimized and not treated right. Derek Chauvin, I wish he’d just say, ‘I’m sorry for what happened.’ That would go a long ways.”

For Gerdts, the deputy, the national debate about policing has been a difficult pill to swallow. The nightly news can feel like daily attacks on his profession. Law enforcement seems headed toward big institutional changes. It makes him anxious. It feels unfair.

“I’ve done nothing wrong,” he said. “I go out and I do my best as a caretaker for the community.”

He feels bad for Twin Cities police. He believes the lack of support from the Minneapolis City Council has torpedoed morale. But he’s also looked inward, knowing his experience in rural Minnesota isn’t universal.

“I know there are people who feel they are treated different by law enforcement,” he said. “I can’t say I understand, because I don’t. I can’t put myself in their shoes. But I know there are people who feel that way, and I respect that. And I do my best to reverse that — to be the nice cop. If almost every contact you’ve had with law enforcement is negative, at least the one with me is positive.”

Reid Forgrave • 612-673-4647


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