Police in Clinton criticized; some claim excessive enforcement
CLINTON -- A controversy involving police and bars that's been swirling around a small Rock County community for weeks will come to a head Monday night at a meeting of the village board.
Some business owners, including bar owners, have complained police are being overzealous in enforcing traffic laws.
Chief David Hooker said he's heard complaints that his officers are waiting outside bars to catch patrons as they drive away. He says that's not true, but the number of intoxicated driving arrests has risen, from 12 last year to 18 this year. Even fewer arrests were made in previous years, he said.
Hooker said enforcement in past years was lax, and young officers who replaced retirees are now doing their jobs as they should.
Rumor has it that some residents are threatening to run candidates against village board members if the board doesn't rein in the police, but The Gazette could not find anyone who would admit that.
Tim Pogorelski, owner of Boxcars Pub & Grub and president of the Clinton Chamber of Commerce, said he and other business owners have been wrongly accused of not backing police and of wanting lax enforcement of drunken driving laws.
Pogorelski, who said he was speaking only for the chamber, said he is concerned officers are stopping cars for minor infractions, such as burned-out license-plate lights. He said he has heard from people who won't bring their business to Clinton anymore because of the perception that police are too picky.
“People feel they can't even come to town, that they're going to be pulled over and told they went through a stop sign or their license plate light is burned out,” Pogorelski said. “It just comes across as feeling like these excuses to pull people over are actually for another cause.”
Hooker, who has been with the department since 2010, became chief in January 2014. He also is acting village administrator. He oversees four full-time and eight part-time officers in the village, which has a population of about 2,100.
Hooker said he has heard that some want him replaced.
Hooker checked out the stories of two people who made complaints and found no evidence that officers stopped anyone unjustly or treated people disrespectfully.
One man walked off a curb in front of a patrol car and almost got hit, so the officer took him to his parents' house because he was worried the man might be be so drunk that he was in danger if left alone, Hooker said. He had not driven and was not arrested.
Another complainant was stopped for a tail-light violation, was given a notice to get it repaired within 14 days, and the next night was stopped again.
The man thought he was being harassed, but Hooker said the second stop was by an officer who didn't know about the previous one, and the officer sent him on his way when he discovered a warning already had been issued.
Officers in all jurisdictions make such stops, Hooker noted, and those stops sometimes lead to arrests for drugs, guns and yes, intoxicated driving.
“They're cops, so when they stop somebody, they're going to start looking because that's what they do,” Hooker said.
Brian Jacobs, owner of Jakes Electric and part owner of the Copper Falls bar, said he has invested a lot in Clinton, refurbishing five buildings and building two new ones and buying advertising to promote the village.
He doesn't want to see Clinton businesses dry up and close, he said, so he is concerned about what he has heard about excessive police enforcement.
“I can't spend enough money to combat a rumor like that,” he said.
Pogorelski is upset because of social-media chatter accusing bar owners of wanting lax enforcement for drunken driving. The owners act responsibly, as do their bartenders, he said.
“It's very frustrating. The chief and myself are friends. I consider him a friend. We've talked about doing a community-involvement event to get officers out and get people to know them because we have some new officers,” Pogorelski said.
The issue is pulling Clinton apart, Pogorelski said, adding: “We don't need that. We need to be together. It's indicative of what's going on in this country. Can't we just pull together and be the community that we want it to be?“
Village Board President Connie Tracy backs the chief and his officers.
“I guess what bothers me is it's not the people that have been pulled over that are coming to me and the board and complaining. It's only the business owners, and they're going only by what they heard, rather than check the facts,” Tracy said.
Tracy thinks most drunken driving arrests are of out-of-towners, and as for equipment violations, “What does that hurt if they're just giving you a warning?
“The problem is, Clinton let things go too long. I've lived here all my life, and there was a time they were told, 'Don't pull anybody over. We don't want to upset anybody,'” Tracy said.
Village resident Megs Emanuel said she lost her son in a traffic crash -- not to a drunken driver -- and police have gone above and beyond to support her and her family. Hooker himself responded while off duty when she was despondent and carrying a gun. He took the gun away, she said.
“I'm 100 percent behind the police all the time unless they're doing something illegal, that kind of thing. You have a broken tail light? Fix it. If it leads to a drunk-driving ticket, then you shouldn't be drinking and driving,” Emanuel said.
“We want them doing their job,” Pogorelski said of police. “It's just, do so without the excessiveness ... We want to see a resolution worked out that everyone can live with.”