Henning brings small-town experience in law enforcement

Photo by Don Nelson Hal Henning is Winthrop’s new marshal.

Photo by Don Nelson
Hal Henning is Winthrop’s new marshal.

By Don Nelson

Small-town law enforcement is comfortable territory for Marshal Hal Henning, who took over as the top cop in Winthrop about a month ago.

Henning’s career has been grounded in smaller communities where he developed a deliberate approach to dealing with their challenges. He’s not afraid to tackle problems, but doesn’t think that has to happen at the cost of good relationships with town residents and officials.

In Winthrop, Henning will be rebuilding those relationships from the ground up. Winthrop hasn’t had its own police officers since Acting Marshal Ken Bajema resigned in December 2015. Police officers from other local agencies have been covering the town on a temporary basis.

Before Bajema resigned late last year, former Marshal Rikki Schwab had resigned in July 2015 after a little more than a year in the job. Two other officers had left the force in the previous six months, and when Schwab left Bajema became the interim marshal. The marshal’s office has had three full-time officers in the past, but the town council agreed earlier to reduce the full-time force to two at Bajema’s suggestion before he resigned.

Henning emerged from the second round of applicants for the two law enforcement officer openings in the marshal’s office. He will be looking for a deputy to assist him.

Varied experience

Henning moved around a lot when he was growing up, but says he calls Minnesota home. In high school, he completed a law enforcement internship with a local reserve officer. “That got me hooked,” he said.

His first law enforcement job took him to the Priboloff Islands in Alaska for a couple of years. Then he returned to Minnesota to earn an associate’s degree at Normandale Community College in suburban Minneapolis. Henning held several part- and full-time positions until the mid-1990s when he got out of law enforcement to work for AT&T as a lineman.

But Henning, who described himself as somewhat troubled as a youngster, said he was eventually convinced by a former teacher and mentor to get back into law enforcement. “He shamed me into it,” Henning said.

After a stint as a deputy in Montana, Henning returned to Minnesota to take over as police chief in Starbuck, Minnesota (no second “s,” population about 1,200), in the west central part of the state — where, he said, Henning had to arrest a subordinate on a charge of sexual assault.

Henning’s journey continued with another job in Montana, followed by a re-return to Minnesota, this time as chief of the Gilbert-Biwabik police department serving two small towns in the Mesabi Iron Range with a combined population of about 3,000.

Henning spent several years in Minnesota. While there, he took on the task of rebuilding an entire new police department for a nearby town that had chosen to give up its force earlier and then opted to return to local control. Meanwhile his wife, Christie, earned a nursing degree.

The couple moved to Kotzebue, Alaska, where Henning was a major crimes investigator and his wife worked as a registered nurse. That was followed by his most recent job under a one-year contract as police chief in tiny Seldovia, Alaska, on the Kenai Peninsula, a town reachable only by boat or plane.

Wasn’t looking

Henning is qualified for a pension and wasn’t vigorously looking for work before he heard about the opportunity in Winthrop. “I was going to be done [with police work] and do something different,” he said.

But the more the couple learned about Winthrop, the more appealing the job became, Henning said. “A lot of the things we loved about Alaska and Montana” are found in the Methow Valley, he said, and Washington is closer to home.

Henning was aware of Winthrop’s recent difficulties with the Marshal’s Office. “You always do your research,” he said. Henning visited the town several times, talked to local leaders and residents, and wasn’t discouraged by what he heard.

“I’ve always been good at fixing things,” he said. “The issues Winthrop has are not specific to the town. They are the same issues you face in all small communities. You have to find the right personalities [in law enforcement officers].”

In talking to local residents, Henning said, he found that “it was unanimous … Winthrop loves its marshal’s office. The feeling is, ‘we’re Winthrop … Why would we settle for less?’”

“Everyone has been super helpful, informative, gracious and open-minded,” Henning said. Other local law enforcement officials “have been fantastic” in helping acquaint him with the valley, Henning said. With stretched resources, it’s common for the various agencies to back each other up when necessary.

Henning and his wife are leasing a home near Methow, which is about equidistant to his job and hers as a nurse at Lake Chelan Hospital.

Things to do

An immediate challenge for the new marshal is to fill the deputy position. Wages are often the biggest hurdle in finding good officers for smaller jurisdictions, and among Henning’s first actions has been to ask the town council to increase pay across the board for Winthrop’s police force (see story, page Ax.) Raising salaries, he said, “will help them down the road to keep people.”

Another concern is updating the town’s two patrol vehicles with better mobile communications equipment. “We’ll be able to operate from the cars in a way that we can’t now,” he said.

At some point, Henning said, he would like to explore the possibility — raised several times in the past — of moving the marshal’s office out of it cramped basement quarters in Town Hall.

“My goal is to brand the department with what Winthrop wants and Winthrop needs,” he said.

In small towns, Henning said, “personal connections are a positive … You know who you’re dealing with.”

Henning intends to be visible but not overly so. For typical in-town duty, the marshal prefers a casual look — jeans and a polo shirt with marshal’s office insignia — to the full tactical vest worn by many officers. He invites residents to contact him with questions or ideas.