A new focus: Police officers' roles changing

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Ann Marie Ames
Sunday, December 18, 2011

JANESVILLE—It was a sight you don't see every day.

Twelve little kids leading the way, followed by 15 uniformed cops earnestly pushing shopping carts. The kids were on missions to spend $166 however they wanted at Walmart. They had to spend at least part of it on themselves.

“This is an order from the police,” Sgt. Chad Sullivan of the Janesville Police Department had said.

As board games, trucks and scooters piled up in the carts or were banished back to the shelves, the uniformed officers frantically did the math on cell phones or scraps of paper. They stood patiently during the painstaking decisions … the helicopter or the airplane? Would my sister rather have a Polly Pocket or this pink tutu?

They helped pick out a lock for a new bike and candles for someone's aunt. One boy picked out a gift he intended to donate, and another tried on winter coats.

Staff members at each of Janesville's elementary schools chose the participants. For the kids to qualify, their families had to meet requirements for the federal free and reduced lunch program. The kids were chosen as rewards for good behavior.

Next year, Sullivan hopes to collect enough donations to get gift cards for 24 students.

The kids, of course, were focused on their shopping missions. From time to time, however, one would glance up at his or her officer buddy with one of those hero-worship looks saved for police, firefighters and Captain America.

The looks clearly said, “You walk on water, and you are here just for me.”

The officers volunteered their time Wednesday for the annual Shop With a Cop event. Still, picking out Christmas presents and sharing punch and cookies with 8-year-olds is an important part of the department's mission to connect with the community to prevent rather than react to crime, said Chief Dave Moore, who was one of the happy shoppers.

It's a mission that is important to many departments across the state and continues to grow, said Larry Neuman, professor and chairman of the Sociology, Anthropology and Criminal Justice Department at UW-Whitewater.

“As a society, we're expecting more of our police officers,” Neuman said. “It's becoming more of a serious professional role we're expecting them to have.”

It's so important that employers more often are looking for applicants with bachelor's or even master's degrees in addition to certifications from police academies, said Mark Brown, dean of the protective services department at Blackhawk Technical College in Rock County.

It's often easier for an applicant to get hired if that bachelor's degree isn't in criminal justice, Brown said.

“If you have a criminal justice background, it's going to be quite a job coming in (getting hired), versus someone with a teaching degree, medical degree or nursing degree,” Brown said. “Departments are looking for someone who's a little more well rounded.”

Not everyone has the ability to communicate with 8-year-olds or walk into someone else's home to safely stop and sort out a family argument. Nor does just anyone have the ability to work side by side with clergy, social workers, politicians, medical professionals and juvenile delinquents, Neuman said.

That's why UW-Whitewater students who want to become police officers are often encouraged to take psychology, interpersonal communications and social work classes, Neuman said.

“But I don't want to be a social worker,” students sometimes respond.

Even the most well-rounded students are often surprised when they go to work as police officers, said Erin Stefanik, a Janesville native who has been with the Janesville Police Department since 2004.

“I think everybody is at least a little startled,” Stefanik said. “Some of these things you would never have imagined you would be taking complaints of. A lot of people think we just ride around in a car and pull people over all day. If you can't think who to call, sometimes people just call the police and ask our advice.”

Stefanik found herself in one of those surprising situations this fall when she responded to a report of a 6-year-old Janesville girl on her bike in the Olive Garden parking lot. The girl told her parents she was going to visit a friend, but she took off on an adventure up Highway 14, up and down an Interstate ramp and over to the Olive Garden.

Stefanik returned the girl safely home

“There's something different every day,” Stefanik said. “You get to learn with people and help people. You can use what you learn for the next time. Sometimes, we learn just as much as they do.”

Last updated: 7:05 pm Thursday, December 13, 2012

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