Primary preview: Sheriff's race
ELKHORN -- The Walworth County undersheriff and a sheriff's deputy face off in the Aug. 12 primary election for sheriff. Both are running as Republicans.
Deputy Ken Brauer and Undersheriff Kurt Picknell recently responded to questions posed to them by Walworth County Sunday.
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Residence: town of La Grange
Job: Walworth County sheriff's deputy
Education: graduate of Delavan-Darien High School, 1990; bachelor's degree in criminal justice from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, 1995
Community service: Big Brothers/Big Sisters of Walworth County, vice president of Tibbets Elementary School PTA, sports coach for youth softball, soccer, baseball and basketball through the Elkhorn Parks and Recreation Department, volunteer/mentor for Concerns of Police Survivors Kids Camp
What publicly elected positions have you held? None
What do you see as the top issue in this race -- and why? The top issue in this race is improving morale at the sheriff's office. The sheriff's office used to be the place that many aspired to work; that is no longer the case. Improving the internal strife that has spiraled out of control in the last five years will help us better serve the citizens of Walworth County. When you have employees who want to come to work, that extra step to get the job done right the first time is completed without compromise.
We have deputies and administration who are no longer held accountable for their actions or nonaction, as often is the case. We have correctional officers who are burned out from working 12- to 16-hour days every day for the past seven months, with no end in sight. We have nepotism and the good ol' boys club still present when it comes to hiring/firing and disciplinary actions. When we have deputies who show up late every day, deputies who take time off with no benefit time to use and deputies who constantly file harassment claims against everyone, the morale starts to decline.
Our administration has stood by and watched this department spiral downward with nothing to say or do about it. We need a change in leadership, someone who will stand up and say what needs to be said, not what some want to hear.
What measures would you propose to combat heroin use in the county? We need to start addressing the issue before it reaches the criminal justice system. We need doctors to control the availability of prescription pain killers (Oxycontin) by looking at other methods of treatment before just handing out pills for pain. More people die each year from prescription drug abuse than any other illegal substance.
Oxycontin is the gateway to heroin. If we could remove it from the market, you would see a steep decline in new heroin addictions. Because that will never happen, we need a team approach from law enforcement, the court system, educators, counselors and doctors. Jail is not always the answer, but for some it is their only hope for detox and starting down the road to recovery.
Should the use of electronic monitoring be expanded for nonviolent offenders? Even for nonviolent offenders we need to take it case-by-case. There are so many factors that come into play when deciding to let someone out. Right now we have a $4.2 million Huber dorm expansion that sits empty. Why? Because everyone jumped on the monitoring bandwagon with no foresight as to fiscal responsibility. The county may save a few dollars with no one in the Huber dorm, but I don't think the taxpayers appreciate wasting $4 million either. We cannot jeopardize public safety in the interest of cost savings. We need to decide what we are doing with this empty building before any expansion of the system is warranted.
What is your opinion of current staffing levels at the sheriff's office? The staffing levels at the sheriff's office are horrible. The corrections division has lost at least six employees since the beginning of the year. The staff is working 12- to 16-hour days every day and they are burned out. Our administration just started to bring on new hires, but when you factor in the hiring process and training program, these people are four to five months away from being brought on line. Corrections officers inquired about having the 11 jail sergeants work some shifts to alleviate the burnout, but their request was denied.
On the deputies side the staffing is not much better. A study was conducted approximately five or six years ago to determine our staffing needs. At the time of the study it was determined that we should have at least 10 more deputies assigned to our patrol division. We spent thousands of dollars for this study and never addressed the issue.
There are times in Walworth County when we have five, sometimes four, squads covering the whole county. This is unacceptable, especially to a citizen where the sheriff's office is the primary law enforcement agency. This is a serious safety issue when the national average for an emergency response is three to seven minutes. With only four or five cars on the road, that could easily double.
We may not have enough cars on the road, yet we have captains in patrol, central records, dispatch and the detective bureau with take-home squads. It doesn't make good fiscal sense to have supervisors with take-home cars when we could be using the money to hire new deputies.
Job: Undersheriff (second in command) at the Walworth County Sheriff's Office for 14 years
Education: graduate of Delavan-Darien High School, 1982; associate degree in police science from Gateway Technical College, 1988; criminal justice management degree from Concordia University Wisconsin, 1998; graduate of Northwestern University, School of Police Staff and Command, 2000; graduate of FBI National Academy, 2004; master's degree in business administration (public administration) from Concordia University Wisconsin, 2011
Community service: President of Elkhorn Area High School Scholarship Foundation, former Wisconsin chapter president of the FBI National Academy Associates (currently a board member), Special Olympics of Wisconsin participant, fundraiser and volunteer in the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Police Unity Tour and support Concerns of Police Survivors (C.O.P.S), active member and outreach at Southern Lakes Evangelical Free Church, former Elkhorn Area Fire Department firefighter, former Elkhorn Youth Basketball coach
What publicly elected positions have you held? I have not sought a publicly elected office prior to running for Walworth County sheriff.
What do you see as the top issue in this race -- and why? I feel that the top issue in this race is who is best prepared to lead the sheriff's office. With an annual budget of $24.8 million and 205 employees, leading and managing a countywide law enforcement agency requires the right combination of experience, dedication and education.
I have served as a law enforcement officer for the past 27 years, rising from the rank of deputy sheriff to undersheriff, the second in command of the office. Over the years I have served in the front lines of our agency in positions including corrections officer, patrol deputy, special assignment detective and court security deputy. I have constantly sought out other assignments during that time including dive team member, SWAT team negotiator and firearms instructor. As undersheriff, a position that I have held for the past 14 years, I supervise all of the divisions of the office through division commanders and provide administrative oversight for the dive team and SWAT team. I have extensive budgeting responsibilities and perform duties of the sheriff in his absence.
Serving as a law enforcement officer requires a commitment to the community and the law. I have dedicated my career to making Walworth County a safer and better place. I have been honored to have received awards during my career, including Employee of the Year in 1994, Meritorious Service award in 2001, Life Saving award in 2005 and Meritorious Service award in 2012.
I realized early in my career that in order to be an effective leader in law enforcement, I must commit to making education a continuing process. I began at Gateway Technical College, receiving a police science associate degree. I continued to pursue my education at Concordia University Wisconsin, receiving a bachelor's degree in criminal justice management. I furthered my education at Northwestern University and the FBI National Academy. For five years I took graduate classes after work and on weekends and in 2011 graduated with an MBA from Concordia University Wisconsin.
Based upon my experience, dedication and education, I believe I am prepared to effectively lead the office of sheriff.
What measures would you propose to combat heroin use in the county? Heroin is a terribly addictive drug that poses a major threat to our community. To defeat an addiction, whether as an individual or a community, it is necessary to admit that there is a problem and resolve to beat it. The good news is that we can defeat heroin, but it will take hard work, not just by the law enforcement community, but by the community as a whole. There are a number of strategies that I am committed to and involved in now that I am convinced can make a difference; they include:
Diligent enforcement. The county has been well served for many years by a drug enforcement unit. Working in conjunction with local police departments and state and federal authorities, these skilled deputies have a solid track record of bringing drug traffickers to justice. We need to continue to fund this unit and lock up the dealers who profit from bringing this poison into our community. I will make it clear that there will be no compromise with these criminals.
Public awareness. An addict's craving for heroin all too often starts with abuse of prescription drugs. This is where public awareness comes in. Old prescriptions need to be disposed of properly. Our residents need to be educated that these drugs all too often serve as gateways to heroin abuse and need to be carefully monitored. These programs are happening right now.
Another strategy is implementing law enforcement training in the use of Narcan to reverse the effects of heroin overdoses. Equally important are local treatment options for those individuals fighting addiction and support for their family members. The district attorney's office is developing a community outreach program and the sheriff's office is assisting in this effort. By working closely with other agencies, departments and the schools, we can educate the community that heroin is back and is killing our neighbors. I endorse an expansion of these programs.
Treatment. The only way to truly defeat this threat is to break the cycle of addiction that leads addicts to break the law and fills our jails and prisons. I was honored to participate in the formation of the new Walworth County Drug Court. The new drug court held its first session July 17. Participants began their supervised and structured treatment plans that will provide those who have been devastated by addiction with the opportunity to rebuild their lives and become productive citizens.
Should the use of electronic monitoring be expanded for nonviolent offenders? Electronic monitoring was expanded a number of years ago and has proven to be an effective way to supervise prisoners at a fraction of the cost of traditional incarceration. I have no plans to change this basic approach. In 2010 when faced with the need to build a $10 million addition to our jail and add hundreds of thousands of dollars each year in increased staffing costs, our sheriff, with the cooperation of the county board and the county's Criminal Justice Coordinating Committee, expanded the use of electronic monitoring for nonviolent offenders.
There is a perception, by some, that electronic monitoring is soft on crime. The reality, in Walworth County at least, is that when a judge provides work-release or Huber privileges to a prisoner, electronic monitoring can provide more effective supervision at a lower cost.
Under the old system, a work-release prisoner would sleep and eat at the jail, but leave during the day, for up to 12 hours. Now, a significant number of work-release prisoners reimburse taxpayers for the cost of electronic monitoring. With GPS we know where prisoners are, in real time, and even how fast they are driving. They are subject to random drug and alcohol tests.
As was the case in the old Huber system, it is important that prisoners under consideration for the electronic monitoring be carefully vetted. We trust our judges and district attorney to do this. Electronic monitoring can keep offenders employed, allowing them to support their families. When they do this, taxpayers are relieved from that responsibility. Prisoners pay for the cost of their monitoring, as well as their food and lodging, which didn't happen under the old system.
Other inmates may need the experience of incarceration in order to reform. Our judges know when incarceration is the most appropriate sentence. When a jail term is ordered, we are committed to provide it.
What is your opinion of current staffing levels at the sheriff's office? In an ideal world, I would hire additional deputies, corrections officers, communications officers and support staff. Our employees work hard and additional positions would be put to good use. In the real world, however, many homeowners struggle to pay their property taxes. In Wisconsin the lion's share of the cost of running a sheriff's office is shouldered by local taxpayers. I know, firsthand, the challenges facing the county and its taxpayers. Additional staff must always be considered, but only after a careful review is made of the fiscal implications and operational demands of adding positions.
In cooperation with the county's human resources committee and the county administrator, our corrections division will be asking the county board to create an additional corrections officer position later this month, a move I support. I also support adding an additional corrections officer in 2015. These are extraordinary requests, but ones that I believe are necessary to ensure that our jail remains safe. Between 2010 and 2014, we cut 11 positions from our budget in order to respond to the hard economic times. I intend to continue the sheriff's approach of carefully balancing the needs of the office with the ability of taxpayers to pay for the cost of government.