Inver Hills Alumnus Spotlight: Dakota County Sheriff Joe Leko

Dakota County Sheriff Joe Leko

1993 graduate serving as Alumni Career Ready mentor

Joe Leko, 52, was elected sheriff of Dakota County in November 2022. Twenty-eight years earlier, Joe graduated from Inver Hills Community College with an Associate of Science (A.S.) in Law Enforcement. He went on to earn a Bachelor of Science (B.S.) in Natural Resources and Environmental Studies from the University of Minnesota Twin Cities.

Joe’s career trajectory changed in 1997 when he accepted a seasonal job as a water patrol officer with the Dakota County Sheriff’s Office. That same year, he was hired as a deputy. After gaining experience in various areas, including patrol duties, drug, and gang investigation, he was promoted to sergeant in 2006. He took on the role of Dakota County Drug Task Force commander in 2009.

FBI National Academy 2016 graduate

On his journey to becoming sheriff of Minnesota’s third most populous county, Joe served on SWAT for 11 years. After getting promoted to captain in 2011, he supervised the Patrol Division and the Detention Services Division.

Joe accrued the knowledge and insights he needed for the top job at the Sheriff’s Office by serving as Sheriff Tim Leslie’s chief deputy for eight years.

In 2014, Joe advanced his professional education by earning a Master of Arts (M.A.) in Public Safety and Law Enforcement Leadership from the University of St. Thomas. He graduated from the FBI National Academy at Quantico, Virginia, in 2016, an achievement open to less than 1 percent of law enforcement personnel across the U.S.

A Dakota County resident for more than 50 years, Joe appreciates the opportunities offered by public two-year colleges located close to home.

“My education at Inver Hills opened my eyes to the critical role policing plays in our communities and the heavy responsibility that comes with it,” Joe said. “The decisions we make can have a great impact on others. We answer the calls no one else wants or can take. You must not only know the law, but more importantly be able to make good decisions and effectively communicate with people. Inver Hills prepared me for that.”

Service on the Alumni Career Ready Mentorship Program

Joe is giving back to Inver Hills by serving as a mentor in the college’s Alumni Career Ready Mentorship Program. Career mentors call on their experience and expertise to give their mentees an insider’s view of their chosen career paths, delivering guidance, tips, and advice that can make a huge difference. Mentees benefit from the invaluable opportunity to fast-forward their personal and professional growth.

“I have had several mentors in my life that provided encouragement, challenged my perspectives, and helped me become the person I am today,” Joe said. “My greatest joy is seeing others succeed. I want to pay it forward.”

Joe added that seeing people motivated, excited, and proud of their achievements is the best part of the mentorship program. When asked what advice he would you give alumni thinking about becoming mentors, he said: “It is extremely rewarding. You will learn as much as your mentee.”

Three words that describe you as a Career Ready mentor for college students:

More about Joe…

Joe grew up in West St. Paul and graduated from Archbishop Brady High School, Class of 1989. In his free time, he enjoys playing golf and fishing as well as watching, coaching, and playing sports. Joe resides in Inver Grove Heights.

Dakota County Sheriff Joe Leko career gallery¹

One word that best describes your experience at Inver Hills:


Joe Leko Q & A

Dakota County Sheriff Joe Leko
What inspired you to pursue a career in law enforcement?

Law enforcement was not on my radar until several years into college at the University of Minnesota, where I majored in Natural Resources and Environmental Studies. I love the outdoors and a career as a conservation officer intrigued me. I learned that I needed a law enforcement degree and enrolled at Inver Hills.

While at the U of M, I completed an internship with the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources and enjoyed it. In the summer of 1997, was hired as a seasonal water patrol employee with the Dakota County Sheriff’s Office. I met some amazing, passionate people and found a whole new world of career possibilities.

I was attracted to the variety of assignments the Sheriff’s Office offered. Sheriff Don Gudmundson hired me as a licensed deputy in the fall of 1997. It’s been an amazing ride.

What do you find most rewarding about your role as Dakota County sheriff?

With each contact you have an opportunity to make a positive impact and a difference in someone’s life. In my current role, I enjoy developing those that I serve alongside and interacting with the community we serve.

I am fortunate to have a front-row seat to witness the incredible work the people in uniform do every day. They are the most compassionate, selfless, and skilled people I have ever met. We run a tight ship with high expectations of our staff. They deliver and then some. They inspire me to be better.

How has law enforcement advanced during your more than 25 years with the Dakota County Sheriff’s Office?

Technology, training, and equipment have changed dramatically in the profession since I started 25 years ago. From additions and advancements in squad computers, phones, GPS, body-worn cameras, vehicles, and weapons, technology has helped us become more effective and efficient, but it has also brought with it opportunity for new crimes that we never anticipated.

In this profession, we are expected to wear many hats. Enforcer, soldier, guardian, medic, teacher, social worker, mediator, lawyer amongst others. We immerse ourselves in training to prepare us for the unpredictable nature of the job. The hours of training we do today has increased three-fold over my 25 years.

What key advice would you give students thinking about careers in law enforcement?

It is incredibly challenging, but in my humble opinion, it’s the most noble and rewarding job there is. We are experiencing low applicant pools the last couple of years due to high profile incidents such as the murder of George Floyd fractured the public trust and shed a bad light on the profession.

The actions of one is not reflective of the people I know who have chosen to serve and protect. Right now, is the best time to get into the profession. We have a great opportunity to influence change.

Words that describe you as a law enforcement professional:

What did you find most remarkable about your training at the FBI National Academy in Quantico, Virginia?

The connections I made with law enforcement professionals from across the world and how passionate and talented they are. I made lifelong friends in 10 short weeks. We have amazing leaders in the profession.

What is your favorite memory from your time at Inver Hills?

My classmates who shared the excitement of getting into the field they dreamed of. There was a lot of energy.

What person has influenced your life the most and why?

I have been very fortunate to have many influential people in my life. Teachers, coaches, family, friends, colleagues, and supervisors. But the most influential people are my parents. Through them, I developed my core values and work ethic. They have been my inspiration and support.

Where do you hope to find yourself in 20 years?

Somewhere sunny and warm. Looking back with no regrets knowing that I made a difference in the lives of others.

Joe Leko 12 Answers

  1. Favorite sport or physical activity: Loved playing high school sports. Football, basketball, and baseball; they no doubt prepared me for life’s challenges; my favorite sport would have to be football; favorite activity for me today is golf
  2. Place you would most like to visit: The Holy Land
  3. Most exciting thing you’ve ever done: Raising my children
  4. Two things you would do if you won a $1 billion lottery: 1) Give back to the community, schools, and Sheriff’s Office where I spent most of my life 2) Set parents and family up for generations
  5. Best book or movie you’ve read or seen lately: Leading Quietly by Joseph Badaracco
  6. Time period (past or future) you would explore if you could time travel: 1920s – 1940s; my grandparents are from the Greatest Generation; they endured the Great Depression and the WWII; patriotism, commitment to work and family, and the hard workers; I have the utmost admiration for that generation that shaped who we are today
  7. One thing you most want to accomplish in your life: Leave the Sheriff’s Office and profession better than I found it; possibly write a book on my experiences and challenges
  8. Your national bird if you were your own country: An eagle—strength, resilience, and wisdom
  9. Dream occupation: Besides playing a professional sport, I’m doing it; wouldn’t change a thing
  10. Person you would most like to meet: Abraham Lincoln
  11. Skill you would most like to learn and master: Guitar—I am a novice with the acoustic guitar and find it therapeutic
  12. Most important issue or problem facing humankind: In the United States, I feel it is the lack of respect and compassion for others; we have become quick to judge and ridicule others; social media can exacerbate it
Learn more about the Alumni Career Ready Mentorship Program by contacting:

Elsbeth Howe
Foundation Development Director
Inver Hills Foundation

¹ SOURCE: Joe Leko: Dakota County Sheriff

About the Criminal Justice program at Inver Hills…

The Criminal Justice department at Inver Hills delivers coursework that prepares you for a rewarding career in a number of criminal justice fields, including security, policing, courts, corrections, rehabilitation, crime prevention, and victim advocacy.

Why study Criminal Justice at Inver Hills?

Explore a wide range of career options.
Completing this Transfer Pathway A.S. gives you a clear direction into corrections, including positions as a corrections officer, correctional treatment specialist, or juvenile probation counselor to name a few. You can also go into peace officer, police officer, or policing and land a job as a deputy sheriff, federal air marshal, DEA agent, and crime scene investigator for starters.

Crime never takes a day off.
Job stability is a major feature in the corrections and peace officer, police officer, or policing fields. Peace officer, police officer, or policing and corrections personnel are on the job 24/7, 365 days a year. Also, public sector employees—the bulk of hires in this sector—are not as easily affected by ups and downs in the economy.

Plenty of room for professional development.
Opportunities to grow both personally and professionally abound in both peace officer, police officer, or policing and corrections. Your career at any level—local, regional, state, and national—will only be limited by your drive to learn and quest to make a difference.

Say goodbye to a humdrum work life.
Are you put off by the notion of a lackluster occupation? Are you looking for challenges and the adrenaline surge of meaningful, dynamic work? Are you ready to solve problems in time-crunched, high-stakes situations? Criminal justice could be your ideal career choice.

Protect and serve is more than a motto.
At its heart, the criminal justice system is about keeping people safe. As a peace officer, police officer, policing or corrections professional, you will make it your life’s work to assist and defend others in consequential, constructive ways.

Help turn lives around.
Studying to become a corrections officer will give you the skill set to make a difference in a correctional facility as you work alongside certified corrections and peace officer, police officer, or policing professionals.

You know how to think ahead.
Solid benefit plans are important. Working in the criminal justice public sector means you’ll be in good shape regarding health insurance and a retirement system. You will also receive paid sick leave, paid holidays, life insurance, and assistance with training and tuition—the latter benefit frequently a vital component for professional development.

Criminal Justice Career Paths

Justice must work for everyone.
A career in criminal justice offers you the chance to serve your community, keep citizens safe, and change lives for the better.

Career Opportunities

Learn more about Criminal Justice at Inver Hills by contacting:

Admissions Team
College Center

Police and Sheriff’s Patrol Officers

Maintain order and protect lives and property by enforcing laws.


This is a very high-wage career that pays well above the statewide median wage of $23.81/hour.


Median: $39.77/hour
High: $47.62/hour

Seven-county Twin Cities metro

Median: $41.67/hour
High: $50.45/hour


In Minnesota, there are 9,200 workers employed in this medium-size career, which is currently in seeing high growth (growth rate 7.2 percent in the U.S.) compared to other careers.

There will be a need for about 9,114 new Police and Sheriff’s Patrol Officers to meet market demand between 2020–2030. This includes the demand due to replacement (workers leaving the occupation or retiring) as well as growth.

— Minnesota State CAREERwise Education (March 23, 2023)

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