MORRIS - In the two months since Sheriff Randy Willis announced he would be resigning at the end of 2012, he has gotten many phone calls and e-mails from residents saying thanks for the little things - opening a car door or quieting a neighbor's dog.
In his 12 years as sheriff, Willis has overseen some big office changes and high-profile cases, but still appreciates the ability to take care of the small problems for the citizens of Stevens County.
"Everybody's problem is the biggest problem in their world, and you try to do that for them as much as you try to do the other stuff," said Willis.
Willis was appointed Sheriff on March 1, 2001 when then-sheriff Larry Sayre resigned to take office as a county commissioner. Willis was elected sheriff in 2002 and re-elected in 2006 and 2010. He announced his resignation in October to take a position with the Minnesota Sheriffs' Association.
"I think [the Sheriff's office] is in a real good place now," Willis said. "I've done what I can here to make it like this, and now it's time for somebody with new ideas and a new vision to take it from here."
Willis got his start in law enforcement while a student at the University of Minnesota, Morris in the early 1970s by working in the dispatch center each weekend, alternating eight-hour shifts with another dispatcher, and serving as a member of the police reserve.
Willis was hired by the Morris Police Department shortly before he graduated from UMM with a degree in sociology. At that time, law enforcement training consisted of an eight-week session at the Bureau of Criminal Apprehension. Willis competed his training and stayed with the MPD - save for a brief "mid-life crisis" - for more than 20 years.
When Sayre was elected to the Stevens County Board of Commissioners and retired as sheriff, Willis saw the opening as an opportunity for change and a chance to take on a new challenge.
Although both the police and sheriff's departments have responsibility for law enforcement duties, the sheriff's office also oversees the PSAP (public safety answering point) and communications, jails, custody proceedings, civil process actions, and courthouse and courtroom security.
In his 11 years in the office, Willis said he and the rest of his staff have made numerous technology upgrades and opportunities for collaboration that have improved the operations of the office while saving country taxpayers money in the long-term.
During his tenure as sheriff, Willis has overseen the switch to to a more robust radio system that allows for communication between agencies, supported upgrades to the office records management system, and collaborated on the switch to a virtual PSAP system that will build redundancy for dispatch services across three counties.
"I think with small counties that's the way of the future," said Willis. "We have to collaborate wherever we can. The hardware that each of us is installing is so powerful that three small counties can share the same system, it's just a matter of getting together with the other counties and taking the time to do it."
One of the most notable events during Willis' tenure as sheriff was the process to explore building a jail in Stevens County. At the time the jail discussion took place, the county was housing an average of 25 to 30 prisoners per day at a high cost to the county. Today, the county averages just seven or eight prisoners per day, which would not be a cost-effective number for running a jail, Willis said.
"I believe now that in the long run the people of the county are going to be fiscally better off that we don't have [a jail]," Willis said. "There was a spike in the number of people we had in jail for a long time there, but it was an interesting phenomenon to see the people come out against this thing. A lot of times, the people are right and I think they were in this case."
Starting Jan. 2, 2013, Willis will begin work as the deputy director of the Minnesota Sheriff's Association.
His primary responsibility will be to help organize conferences and trainings on behalf of the organization, but he may also be called on to speak at the legislature or do other lobbying for the organization. One of his priorities in the new position, Willis said, is to organize more regionally trainings to make it easier for officers in remote counties to attend trainings.
Although Willis was not involved with the process to appoint his successor, he said the county went through a "good process" and had two strong final candidates to choose from.
"Jason [Dingman] will just do a great job for Stevens County, and I hope the people will support him and support their sheriff's office as well as they have me in the last few years," Willis said.
"I've learned a lot of things from a lot of people in my time in Stevens County," Willis added. "It's been great, and my life is richer for it."