Police Chief Lee Sjolander does not feel like a chief.
The self-proclaimed “smart-alec” and “goofball” has a reputation that cannot be adequately captured in a lifetime, not to mention what turned into an hour-long interview.
“Have a seat, because I talk a lot,” he ordered from his chair. The room is surrounded by memorabilia and an extensive collection of police patches that span the globe from the Sydney, Australia, Police Department to the Guam Police Department.
Since 1995, Sjolander has made his home in Kenyon. He started out part-time admitting, “I thought I’d only be here six months and then move on to something bigger.” The next year he was hired full time. When the city started contracting the Sheriff’s office, he latched on there before going to Wanamingo, then Pine Island, where he received a promotion to a narcotics task force.
This road led Sjolander to one fateful night where he was sitting in his basement watching the City Council vote on a renewed Kenyon Police Department. Soon after, Sjolander began receiving requests to be chief.
“I never wanted to be a chief. I’m not a chief. People call me chief, but I don’t feel like a chief,” he explained of his detachment to the title.
Of course the rest is history. Sjolander is the chief, whether he likes the title or not. In order to do his job the best way he can, he ventured to promote the positive aspects of his beloved community.
“I thought to myself, how do I share this? With social media, people have smart phones, they can take their time to read [Facebook] anywhere,” he explained of his decision to start a Kenyon Police Department Facebook page, “I started the page, and I’m kind of a smart-alec, so I decided to do ours funny.”
He added, “I started it and a couple of people liked it, and I thought, ‘if we got 500 Facebook followers, I would be tickled pink, ya know? That’s a lot for a small town.”
His idea of what the page would be continued to evolve. He began with some trivia about the heights of the tallest and shortest officers in the shop, and then came up with the idea of “Thoughts from Chief Sjolander,” a name he now regrets due to his dislike of the label “chief.”
Next, he wrote a post called “advice for teenagers” that, unbeknownst to him, would vault his social media career into relative fame.
“I wrote it and went to bed,” he recalls of that night, “I got up and looked at it and it had been viewed 220,000 times and it blew my mind that people would read something a goofball from Kenyon, Minnesota, wrote.”
With this newfound notoriety, Sjolander challenged Duluth Police chief Gordon Ramsey to see who could generate the most likes in a month.
“He claimed his was the most-liked department in the state, so I had to challenge him,” Sjolander said. “Loser buys the winner a doughnut.”
Kenyon won, but Sjolander took away more than just a delicious doughnut from the experience.
“It’s not, ‘you better do this’ or ‘you better do that;’ let’s have some fun with other agencies and show our human side.”
Showing the human side of law enforcement is at the heart of Sjolander’s motivations for the Facebook page. He noted that a lot of times, people see the uniform and they don’t see the person.
That said, Sjolander the person, is not lost on anybody in Kenyon. In the winter of 2012, he took a homeless man into his own home. Soon after, with the help of the Facebook page, he found the man an apartment and, soliciting his social media followers once again, he furnished the apartment for free.
His sterling reputation in town stems from acts like this, which led KARE 11’s Boyd Hooper to come to Kenyon to do a “Land of 10,000 Stories” segment.
After Hooper’s piece ran, the popularity of the page exploded once again. Sjolander’s theory suggests it has something to do with his tone.
“People like good news,” he elaborated, “especially nowadays when you see so many negative things going on, people want that. We don’t highlight the negative, we highlight the positive.”
For instance, one of Sjolander’s favorite posts is “my hands, my story” which includes a picture of one or more people’s hands and includes a part of their story.
Another hit of his is the “life with my teenage daughter” segment which, according to Sjolander, has not divided his household quite yet.
“She is your typical teenager, some days we are clicking and other days I’m probably the boogeyman to her,” he joked of his daughter’s patience with his goofy side, “She is such a quick wit too, and such a good sport. I always ask her first before I post anything because she has to live here, too.”
This positivity and fun that permeates the computer screen and nestles into the hearts of his followers is all an attempt to show his and his department’s human side.
Sjolander is not sure, however, if his model of law enforcement would work everywhere.
“Part of me says, if larger agencies did things like this, maybe things would be smoother. There would be more trust and transparency,” he noted. However, Sjolander is well aware of the perks of doing his work in a place like Kenyon.
“I don’t know if I could do the same thing in a larger town,” he said. “I’ve got a great city. Our citizens are amazing, our city council is great and our city administrators have been wonderful, so our way of doing things works here.”