WATCH: Walworth County Deputy of the Year wants to change image of law enforcement
ELKHORN—Deputy Dan Nelson's coworkers say some of their fondest memories at the Walworth County Sheriff's Office are partner shifts with Nelson, who is known for his jokes.
“Sometimes I haven't laughed that hard, ever,” said Sgt. Ira Martin, who has worked with Nelson for about 15 years.
Nelson is the sheriff's main community outreach deputy, so civilians might see him giving presentations, holding doors open, cracking jokes and manning booths for the sheriff at local events.
Nelson loves jokes, but there is one he cannot stand.
“You get a parent walking through, and you can hear them telling the kid, 'Behave or I'm going to send them to you.' That's my … I hate hearing that,” Nelson said.
“That's the kid's role model telling them basically to fear. 'If you don't behave, I'm going to send you to the cops.' That's not what we want,” he said. “We want them to come to us when they need help.”
When people, especially children, see police as a threat and not a resource, Nelson's job gets harder. An impressionable child can take one negative interaction with officers and internalize it.
Nelson wants to change that perception.
His extensive work in the community earned him the Deputy of the Year Award in May.
When a Gazette reporter accompanied him on a shift in late June, Nelson offered a couple of two-word phrases that describe how he does his job and why he does it that way: “Be seen” and “Be prepared.”
The kind of work Nelson does won't show up often in a cop TV drama, but he and others at the sheriff's office agree that community policing plays an important role in public safety.
Schools in Rock and Walworth counties were on edge in April during the nine-day manhunt for Joseph A. Jakubowski, who authorities believed might target schools in a mass shooting.
When Nelson drove up to Lyons Center Elementary School during recess, kids asked him, “Are you here because of what's going on?”
No. He was there to stretch his legs and play basketball.
“Some of the kids probably went home: 'Hey, this cop shot basketball with us today.' Could have been their highlight,” Nelson said. “It was my highlight. I went home, and I told my wife, 'Hey, I got to play basketball with the kids at recess.'”
A shift with Nelson is full of moments like that.
He waves at young children, perhaps giving them one of the sheriff's badges he carries with him.
At a stop for lunch near a local gas station, Nelson walked by a man who was gassing up his food truck. The man looked tense when Nelson asked how he was doing and where he was from.
The tension dissolved when Nelson joked about wanting tacos.
Those day-to-day interactions chip away at people's apprehension about law enforcement, he said.
Nelson hopes to make more positive connections at Walworth County's second National Night Out, an Aug. 1 nationwide event designed to bring the public together with law enforcement and emergency responders.
Last year's event included firefighters in full gear playing dodgeball with kids. Sure, dodgeball is fun, but Nelson said it can help children feel comfortable around a large figure wearing a mask.
“We're all here for you and to work with you. It's just community building,” Nelson said. “That's the things I enjoy doing, my favorite part of the job. Being able to do it on a national night, in the spotlight—that's perfect.”
Nelson, who just turned 44, is involved in much more.
He is a board member for Operation Click and the Walworth County Alliance for Children, known as the Tree House. He's the county's Crime Stoppers liaison officer, is a captain for the sheriff's office's Relay for Life team and is the sheriff's office's child safety seat technician.
He also gives presentations to groups around the county on topics ranging from active-shooter training to bicycle safety.
His colleagues sometimes tease him about the amount of time he spends working off duty, whether it's driving 45 minutes each way for the Operation Click Board of Directors monthly night meeting or attending Fourth of July parades to promote National Night Out.
Sgt. Alan Gorecki, who has known Nelson for about 17 years, said not everyone wants to do the nitty-gritty community work Nelson does. His efforts show the public “that we're human, too,” Gorecki said.
Martin and Nelson were known at the sheriff's office as "Skipper" and "Little Buddy," respectively—names taken from the 1960s TV show "Gilligan's Island." Martin was named Deputy of the Year in 2016.
“I'll be honest, the one thing every time I hear (about) Dan is, 'That guy will do anything for anybody,'” Martin said. “He has never said 'no' to anybody for anything. He'll give you the shirt off his back if you need it.”
As Nelson's 12-year-old daughter inches closer to getting her driver's license, the issue of safe driving is becoming more personal.
“You see these crashes that happen, and you just dread that it's going to be her or one of her friends,” he said.
Through his involvement in Operation Click, a program that works with schools to develop safe driving habits, Nelson has met others who are personally affected by the issue.
Months ago, Nelson was at a YMCA in Green County for one of his daughters' swim meets. The crowd took a moment of silence for the friends and families of three Monroe students who died in a Feb. 10 car crash.
Nelson texted the Green County sheriff's deputy he knew was involved in the Operation Click program. No response.
The next day, they returned to the YMCA, and there was another moment of silence. He texted again. No response.
Nelson later found out the deputy was the first one to arrive at the crash scene. It was “traumatic,” Nelson said.
“Certain calls, they affect you more,” he said.
Nelson keeps a pink teddy bear in the back of his squad car. He never knows when he'll see a young kid at a crash or a fire.
“It's amazing what a little teddy bear will do,” he said.
Nelson pushes safe driving because he believes preventative efforts are working.
In 2011, sheriff's deputies did a random seat-belt check at high schools and found about 74 percent compliance. Now, they're at 97 percent compliance for kids who are participating in the program.
Seat-belt compliance might be a rather tame assignment, but Nelson has learned that there is no “routine” call. Anything can escalate quickly.
He remembers the day of his worst call: June 21, 2006.
Another deputy had responded to a late-night report of domestic violence and was taken hostage. Nelson was next on the scene. The deputy eventually escaped unharmed.
Nelson had finished his interviews and reports by 5 or 6 a.m. when his wife called with news that his daughter had been rushed to the emergency room. She turned out to be OK, but Nelson learned that circumstances can change at any moment.
That level of constant readiness sneaks into his personal life, which is common in law enforcement.
Nelson sits at the end of the pew at church. At restaurants, his kids know where he wants to sit.
Through his daily work, his active-shooter presentations to Girl Scout counselors or his lessons on scams involving the elderly, Nelson wants everyone to be prepared. Always.
Little things matter.
So when a parent jokes about sending her kid to Nelson when he causes trouble, Nelson stops the parent.
He understands that little things can break down stereotypes and long-held perceptions.
“Maybe they (the parent) had a negative experience, and they feel that way,” Nelson said.
“We just need to break that cycle.”