Nancy Edmonds Hanson
Mark Empting’s elderly black lab Audie is used to spending a lot of time alone.
“We haven’t gone hunting in years,” the first-term Clay County sheriff admits about his 12-year-old bird dog. “This job is 24/7. I was a workaholic before the election, and I’m still one. I guess you might say I’m married to this job.”
That’s no surprise. The 45-year-old Dilworth native has been drawn to law enforcement since boyhood, looking up to former sheriff Bill Bergquist as his mentor and and a family friend. When Mark joined the Moorhead Police Department’s then-new Explorer Post as a teenager, he went on ride-alongs with Bergquist during his patrol officer days. After high school, he completed the same law enforcement program at Alexandria Technical College where Bergquist had gotten his education. And when Mark joined the Clay County Sheriff’s Department in 2002, his role model would soon be elected sheriff – a role he filled until last December, when he retired after 16 years as the county’s top cop.
The former sheriff endorsed his longtime protege when Mark decided to run to fill his shoes. Competing against two other members of the department and a Fargo officer, Mark was elected in November by a comfortable margin over his colleague Scott Steffes. “I’ve always loved law enforcement, but I never thought that I’d be sheriff,” he reflects. “When Bill retired, it seemed like it might be a good fit. Now I wouldn’t change that decision for the world. I can’t imagine not doing this. It’s so fun.”
Mark heads a department of 109 employees. Almost half work at the new Clay County Jail, with another 10 serving in the records division. Of the balance, 12 officers are assigned to patrol the 1,053 square miles that make up the county. The rest of the 34 deputies are investigators and school resource officers or involved in less well-known sides of the department’s responsibilities, from civil process, warrants and transports to court security.
Guarding the courts was where the sheriff started when he went to work for the county after five years as an officer in Glyndon and Dilworth. Then Mark moved onto night patrol, handling calls for service that were long on traffic enforcement. “Community-oriented policing” had already had impact on the role he was called to fill. “We all spent a lot of time talking to people at picnics and other gatherings, putting a face to the name,” he recalls. “We still do. The goal then and now is to make people feel a little more comfortable about talking to us. You never know when that will make a difference in someone’s life.”
That early training would prepare him well for one of the most significant aspects of his role as sheriff. “Building rapport is a big, big part of the job,” he observes. That entails spending many, many hours in every corner of Clay County at community celebrations, church suppers and the like. The most recent was Dilworth’s Loco Days, where he wore his dual hats as sheriff and city fire chief. He has volunteered with the fire department since 1991, shortly after graduating from high school.
“Fun fact,” he offers. “The last three sheriffs have all come from Dilworth.” Not only that; Larry Costello, whose term preceded Bergquist’s, is a shirttail relation. His mother and Mark’s grandmother were sisters.
Mark says that one of the best assets of Clay County law enforcement is the outstanding support they receive from the people they serve. “This is a great community. We have a ton of community support,” he points out, adding, “It’s not like this everywhere.” While law enforcement in the Twin Cities and beyond often finds itself at odds with portions of the public, he cites positive relationships from top to bottom in his county, including the commissioners who govern it and its state legislative delegation.
“We do things different here,” he notes. “In areas like ours with smaller populations, we have a chance to get out more and develop relationships with our people. In metropolitan areas, they’re so busy that they don’t have time to get out of the car and meet community members face to face. That’s important. Even 15 minutes, spent right, can have a big impact in the long run.”
Clay County is not immune to city-style problems. “Drugs and gang violence – we have them here,” he reports. “I won’t be popular for mentioning gangs, but they’re definitely present.” Instead of the wide affiliations with 1990s-style groups like the Latin Kings or Bloods and Crips, though, he says today’s gang activity tends to be more local in scale. “As for drugs, this is the largest metro area between Minneapolis and Seattle. When you have a market, you’re going to have drugs.” While most of Clay County’s problems are centered around Moorhead and Dilworth, the trouble does spill into smaller towns and rural areas: “We’re tough on them. We don’t want them here.”
What’s the toughest part of the job? “Calls involving children. Those are always the toughest for all of us,” he says. “A vehicle crash where kids have died, a SIDS death or some other tragedy – that’s the worst. You never get over that.”
Death notifications, too, are grueling. “People think law enforcement officers are all about pulling you over and handing out citations. That’s not it. One of the biggest parts of your job is being called on to be whatever a grieving person needs at that moment – a counselor, someone to support them.” He learned to face those moments, as his colleagues do, from more experienced officers. He recalls a veteran trooper’s practical guidance: “Make sure that you stand close enough to catch them when they fall.”
There are lots of ways in which people fall. Helping those who’ve broken the law to stand again looms large on the sheriff’s mind. With the new jail’s much-touted focus on addressing behavioral issues and mental health, the department is looking beyond locking up offenders to the day when they’ll reemerge into society: “We don’t want to see them back here again.”
He credits the volunteers of Hearts of Clay – the newly renamed Clay County Jail Ministry – for their help in rehabilitating those who’ve been jailed. “We don’t just lock you up. We do what we can to help you get out of that life,” he says. Dozens of volunteers spend “an incredible amount of time,” he notes, helping prisoners change their lives for the better. While there’s a religious component to their work, they go far beyond with classes that teach real-life skills that range from financial management to parenting.
Yet the tide still rises. Calls for service have risen by more than 30 percent since 2015, while the number of deputies available to respond has remained static. “Yes, I’d like to see us in growth mode, too,” the sheriff confides. “But we have an excellent staff of genuinely kind, caring people. They make me look good every day.
“That’s what I most want the people we serve to understand,” he emphasizes. “This is a safe community, a safe county. We have good people working hard and diligently every day to see it stays that way.”
It’s a 24/7 job
Nancy Edmonds Hanson