Milton's top cop calling it a career

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Sunday, January 6, 2008
— Thirty years ago, Tom Gilland was attending class at UW-Whitewater and planning to become a teacher.

Today, Gilland still considers himself a teacher, though not in the way he originally envisioned.

As a police officer, Gilland saw every arrest as a chance to change someone’s life. Every ticket was a chance to improve someone’s habits. Every interaction was a chance to educate residents about the police department.

“From day one, I always believed that you treated everybody the way you want to be treated,” he said. “That may sound a little strange when you give someone a ticket, but if you change someone’s outlook on safety, there’s a benefit there.”

Gilland’s 29-year career with the Milton Police Department comes to an end at 12:01 a.m. Monday. As he looked back last week, he couldn’t believe how the years flew by, he said.

Gilland, a native of Fort Atkinson, started at the Milton Police Department the day his student teaching stint at Parker High School ended. Though he graduated in 1979 with a teaching degree, his plan was to work at the Milton department a few years before moving on to the FBI.

But the community and its people grabbed hold of him.

“It’s the people you meet and talk to along the way,” he said.

Gilland has been a vital part of that community during his time with the department, city officials said.

“He felt it was important to keep in contact with the residents and the city,” Mayor Nate Bruce said. “They would recognize him, know him, appreciate him.”

As chief for the last three years, Gilland has had an open-door policy, and everyone knew him as “Tom,” he said. He was proud to be a “patrolling chief,” one who gets out in the community instead of staying behind a desk all day. Some of his fondest memories are helping with the Special Olympics and being part of the FFA Alumni.

Still, Gilland was tough when he had to be.

He’s led the department through budget crunches and the current staff shortage, City Administrator Todd Schmidt pointed out. He’s dealt with high-profile cases, such as the 1984 stabbing of Marcy Staskal by her brother Mark and the 2006 murder/arson case of Daniel Kerr.

Sometimes, Gilland’s job seemed at odds with his upbeat, look-on-the-bright-side personality. But it’s a matter of separating yourself from the task at hand, he said.

“No. 1, you’ve got a job to do,” he said. “No. 2, you decide in advance how you’re going to handle it.”

But he never forgot that what he did as a police officer affected those around him.

“Small towns, it’s all about how you treat someone,” he said. “You can have an incident, and 15 years later, they still remember.”


When Chief Tom Gilland joined the Milton Police Department in 1978, the department consisted of five officers in a tiny building on First Street, he said.

Since then, the department has changed offices twice, and the number of officers has grown to nine.

The city around the department has changed drastically in the last 30 years, too. The population increased from 4,100 in 1980 to 5,700 in 2006, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

Milton has grown closer to Janesville and become more accessible to Madison, Milwaukee and Chicago, Gilland said.

Sometimes, that can lead to more crime as criminals travel through from bigger cities, he said.

“The bad guys now are much more mobile,” he said.

Crime fighting has also changed. Gilland marvels at the technology that has sprung up in the last 30 years, he said.

“We went from a basic portable radio we carried, then squad radios, now we got cell phones in the cars, MDCs in the cars,” he said.

MDC stands for mobile data computer, devices that virtually all police officers in Rock County now have in their cars that make their lives much easier, Gilland said.

Meanwhile, the Internet has provided more information to residents and officers alike through online court records and sex offender registries, he said.

“Citizens out there want to be more informed,” he said.

They also scrutinize police officers more carefully, he said, though he thinks that’s a good thing.

“Police perceptions and public perceptions are not always the same, but as a police officer you’ve got to be aware that those perceptions are different,” he said.

“We’ve always got to be cognizant of how other people are viewing us.”


A lot of Chief Tom Gilland’s strongest memories with the Milton Police Department deal with tragedy: the Staskal murder, the Kerr arson.

But one happy memory rises to the top.

On Oct. 13, 1998, Gilland was on patrol when he heard a call for help from a few blocks away.

An 18-month-old child, Mikel Fryda, was choking on a bottle cap lodged in his throat while his horrified family looked on.

Gilland called Janesville paramedics, calmed the family and held Mikel until an ambulance arrived, said Mikel’s mother, Heather Fryda of Milton.

“(Mikel) wouldn’t be here today if he hadn’t been there,” she said.

Doctors at Mercy Hospital removed the cap, and Mikel was fine the next day, she said.

Mikel is now 10 and has no memory of the event. Heather used to bring him into the police department occasionally so Gilland could see how he was doing.

Gilland kept a copy of an article about the rescue that ran in The Janesville Gazette mounted on his office wall.

“Everybody searches for those special moments, and this was special,” he said. “A happy ending. We don’t always get those here.”

Besides an occasional “hello,” Heather hasn’t had much contact with Gilland since the event. But she will miss the retiring police chief, she said.

“It was nice knowing he was always there if I needed help,” she said.

Last updated: 2:57 pm Thursday, December 13, 2012

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