“It Certainly Can Happen Anywhere”
After a slew of violent acts against police nationally, local officers say communication with public saving grace
By Brandi Makuski
In the wake of nationwide reports of violence against law enforcement, local police say they’re pushing for more communication and extra vigilance. And not just with other police agencies.
“I think it’s important to keep communicating with your community,” said Plover Police Chief Dan Ault. “Sometimes it’s that loud person, or those really loud people, who can really stir it up.”
Ault said generalizations are given to professions as a whole in the face of one bad incident.
“It’s like when something bad happens with a teacher, all teachers are labeled as bad, and we know that’s not the case. We know the majority of teachers aren’t bad. It’s the same with priests- every time there’s a scandal, all priests are labeled as bad. We know the majority are doing their job honorably and the best they can. Same with the police. We’re in a business that’s scrutinized and observed closely, and when someone does something wrong, there are these groups ready to pounce on them.”
Ault said he’s confident that locally, there’s a “silent majority of who just haven’t been heard”, but knowing widespread support is in the community doesn’t automatically make things easier for police in his department.
Eight law enforcement officers have been killed in the line of duty over the past month. According to the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund, shooting deaths of officers are down 13 percent compared with the same January-to-September period in 2014. Despite the improvement, local police say it’s still a hard pill to swallow.
“It’s concerning, we talk about it regularly,” Ault said. “But it’s a level of openness and communication that has to exist between police agencies and the public. I’m absolutely certain we can’t keep the community safe without the support of the public. If something happens locally, we have that support of the public. That’s essential.”
Concerning also is the anti-police sentiment which appears to be moving closer to Wisconsin. Local police say they’ve all seen footage of last week’s anti-police protest in neighboring Minnesota- a protest for which police ironically helped clear the road of traffic- where protesters cried out, “Pigs in a blanket, fry ’em like bacon,” and only hours after a Harris County, Tex. sheriff’s deputy was ambushed and executed near Houston. Five days later, a police officer in Fox Lake, Ill., was gunned down at the southern boarder of Wisconsin. At press three suspects in that case are still at large.
“It’s a constant reminder to us we need to be vigilant,” said Chief Deputy Dan Kontos of the Portage Co. Sheriff’s Office. “We know our profession is not a safe one, but there are things we can do to help protect ourselves- and this is a reminder we have to do those things to make sure we get to go home at the end of the day.”
Kontos said Portage Co. does experience its share of violence, and noted officers had been involved in local shootings recently. While none of those incidents had an obvious anti-police tone, Kontos said officers are aware it exists in some capacity around the county.
“I don’t know if we’re in a position to combat it, we’re more in a position to play defense,” he said. “We like to reach out to the community, be involved with the community. We live in a great part of the country, and I consider myself blessed to live here, but it can happen here.”
Stevens Point Interim Police Chief Marty Skibba said officers in the city have been watching nationwide events very closely. City officers, he said, are a very tight-knit group and take regular steps to look out for each other, something he says happens a little more often over the past few weeks.
“This is one of those situations where we just have to keep doing our job and being professional, and having each other’s backs, all while keeping an extra eye on what’s happening in the community,” Skibba said, adding similar attitudes towards police were prevalent during Vietnam War protests of the late 1960’s.
“Where exactly this new kind of protesting is coming from, what initiated it, whether that was events from a year ago in [Ferguson] Missouri or something else, I don’t know. I wish I did,” he added.
Assistant Chief Tom Zenner said officers frequently encounter intimidating situations with anti-police overtones, but notes it typically involves someone under the influence of alcohol or drugs, and that’s all part of the job.
“We know what we’re getting into when we take the job,” Zenner said. “But of course, we’re very fortunate in this community that it is as close-knit as it is. Do we have our share of violence? Sure. Do we have those situations where you, as a police officer, feel threatened or where your safety might be in danger? It happens. But in terms of this kind of [anti-police] violence, I mean, this could happen anywhere. We just need to continue that habit of being professional at all times and talking with the public every time we’re out there.”
“When we take a defendant into custody, we don’t pass judgment,” Skibba said. “That’s not our job. Our job is to enforce the laws set by the City Council, the state, what have you. We don’t judge the public. Police officers have a job to do, and we deserve the same kind of consideration we give to the public.”