For the first time in 18 years Friday, a changeover will come to the only appointed position in St. Louis County government.
Undersheriff Dave Phillips is retiring, handing reins of second-in-command of the Sheriff’s Office over to Supervising Deputy Jason Lukovsky.
“I leave this job with no complaints,” Phillips, 60, said. “It’s suited me well, and I hope I’ve done well by the county.”
Both men were selected by Sheriff Ross Litman, but in different ways.
Newly elected in 2002, Litman conducted a rigorous internal search of at least a half-dozen candidates, requiring letters of interest and a full panel interview.
“I was new then,” Litman said. “But arguably the best decision I’ve ever made was hiring or promoting Dave Phillips to undersheriff.”
The choice of Lukovsky, 49, to replace Phillips after his 18 years in the role was simpler, Litman explained. Now in his fifth, and he says final, term as sheriff, Litman hand-picked Lukovsky, a man he’s already promoted four other times.
“He’s got widespread respect, and all the potential in the world, which has been demonstrated over the years in all the positions he’s held in this office,” Litman said.
This week, the News Tribune sat down with Phillips and Lukovsky to discuss the changeover, challenges in policing, and the next horizon in the 260-person St. Louis County Sheriff’s Office: the addition of body cameras to its deputies.
Phillips expects body cameras to come within the year, describing technical details having been worked through and money set aside. One of the issues has been how to manage the public data elicited by the surveillance. Data requests have skyrocketed in the age of body and squad-car dashboard cameras, which the county already uses.
“We’re at the point where we’re very much ready to head in that direction,” Phillips said. “It adds a layer of transparency the public is really looking for.”
Deputies, too, Lukovsky said, describing how the footage often vindicates law enforcement actions.
“There’s no doubt in my mind 95% of our people want them,” Lukovsky said.
Once captain of the University of Minnesota Duluth baseball team, Lukovsky’s colleagues described the 22-year-veteran as a tenacious investigator, who once helped solve a 12-year-old cold case involving the Sept. 3, 2000 homicide of Trina Langenbrunner by Joseph Couture.
Lukovsky is coming to the role having most recently led the office’s 911 Emergency Communications division.
“I used to look at license plates when I’m driving around in my patrol car,” Lukovsky said, “and now I’m looking at microwave units on (cell) towers.”
Once a sniper for 12 years on the office’s tactical team, Lukovsky has a fondness for having his partners’ backs and being able to affect outcomes. But he hasn’t handcuffed a suspect in the last eight years of administrative duties.
“I have taken a lot of my sports experience into this field, and have seen a lot of leadership qualities that go hand in hand,” he said. “I look forward to mentoring on a different level now, and along those lines nothing makes you prouder than seeing somebody you’ve invested a lot of time in get promoted and move up the ranks as well.”
Lukovsky and his family, including a wife and two children, live in Fredenberg Township north of Duluth. Supervising deputies at duty stations in Hibbing, Virginia and Duluth will report to him starting next week.
Phillips is retiring to his multigenerational home outside Pike Lake, where he and his wife live with the family of one of their two daughters.
“It’s nontraditional, but I love it,” Phillips said. “This is how people lived 200 years ago. And I get to see Spencer, my grandson, every day of every week, so, to me, I wouldn’t change that for anything.”
A native of the Twin Cities, Phillips went to school for forestry, but was recruited into policing as a community service officer in Plymouth, Minnesota, and later at a job fair by St. Louis County deputies.
He described retirement as exhilarating, with some apprehension.
“This place has been a part of my life for over 32 years,” Phillips said. “Every job has its challenges, but I’ve been so grateful to work for this sheriff, and the people of this county.”
Both men described Litman as an intelligent, strategic sheriff who vigorously challenges their assumptions and work. They say the office's command staff is as solid as it has ever been.
“When Ross first ran for sheriff, he was an investigator and I was a sergeant, so I actually outranked the sheriff back then,” Phillips said fondly.
Litman never had to think about alternatives to Phillips.
“I get emotional about it,” Litman said. “We have worked extremely well together, and I value his input. We have a close friendship, and a close professional relationship.”
St. Louis County Board Chair Mike Jugovich called Phillips a “great employee.”
“I’ve enjoyed him, gotten to know him through a tour of the harbor,” Jugovich said. “He’s humble and genuinely interested in what you have to say. The guy is just top notch. We’ll miss him.”
Unprompted, Phillips connects the controversial dots between the start of his career and its culmination. The backdrop of his career started around the time Rodney King was videotaped being beaten by Los Angeles police in 1991, and ends with the conviction last week of former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin on three counts related to the murder of George Floyd last year.
“Rodney King really turned a bright spotlight onto the practices having to do with use of force by peace officers, and now flash forward to today and it’s the same,” Phillips lamented. “As law enforcement administrators, we’ve got a long way to go. We have things to fix and we have people in our jurisdictions of all races — there needs to be healing and there needs to be a lot of work done.”
Phillips was in San Francisco last week doing training with police officers there.
“You could have heard a pin drop,” at the Chauvin verdict being read, he said.
“We’re all in this profession; we’re all feeling it, and what Chauvin did was not right,” Phillips said. “That’s not how we’re trained. That’s not what we do. That’s not the public expectation.”
He repeated a line that’s often said about policing: that officers often see people at rock bottom, in their worst moments.
He recalled the Lincoln Park standoff in February which resulted in the shooting death of Duluth police K-9 Luna, and ultimately the suspect, David “Pogo” Joseph Wayne Conwell, who succumbed to deadly force used by the Sheriff’s Office.
Cognizant not to micromanage command staff at the scene, Phillips was shuttling supplies back and forth to a standoff which lasted roughly 20 hours.
“It was an extremely hazardous situation with firearms, and they were trying moment by moment to get the individual to surrender, and in the end it just wasn’t to be,” Phillips said. “Our guys were surrounding the house, trying to negotiate, trying to give this guy a chance.”
It’s in those moments that Phillips also noted he sees the best in people — the ones he’s aligned himself with for his entire career.
“Normal human behavior is that you’re running away from a bad thing,” Phillips said. “But police officers, firefighters, public safety folks, they get the call and they’re going towards it. To me, that’s the best trait of humankind, like soldiers in combat. They didn’t ask for this, but you know what, ‘We’re going to do this.’ ”