Police still trying to do the little things

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Ted Sullivan
Tuesday, April 19, 2011
— When Rock County was a more rural community, law enforcement officers gave kids baseball cards, responded to every car-deer crash and opened car doors when drivers locked their keys inside.

As the area grew, culture changed and money and manpower became scarcer, law enforcement had less time and money for the little things.

Although police can’t do all the old niceties, they’ve found other ways to keep it positive.

“The community policing aspect of the sheriff’s office seems to have expanded quite a bit,” Rock County Sheriff’s Sgt. Doug Coulter said. “It’s grown a lot.”

Deputies walk in parades, show up at Easter egg hunts and participate in school events and career fairs, Capt. Curt Fell said.

They give away junior deputy badges, Frisbees and bracelets that state “2 Bright 4 Drugs.”

Janesville officers give away children’s books, direct traffic for large funeral processions and pass out stickers.

Both agencies host National Night Out for families and have a presence at the Rock County 4-H Fair.

“It gives people a chance to see us in a different kind of light,” Fell said. “Usually, law enforcement is only called when things are going wrong or at the last resort.”

Deputies and officers from both agencies keep stuffed animals in their patrol cars to give to children on calls. The police department has children’s books, and the sheriff’s office has blankets.

“It’s really important to me to show kids that we don’t just show up when we arrest people,” Janesville police officer Rod Hirsch said. “I want them to see we’re not just there when bad things happen.”

'Strain on manpower'

Most law enforcement agencies won’t unlock doors for people with keys stuck in their cars because of the liability and increased complexity of vehicles.

“We had such a call on those that it was a real strain on manpower,” Janesville police Sgt. Brian Donohoue said.

Newer cars with side airbags, electronic components and wires in the doors that could easily be damaged when officers unlocked vehicles, he said.

“We have damaged a couple cars, the electronic components if you will, the wiring,” Donohoue said.

Fell said similar problems happened at the sheriff’s office.

“Now, you have opened their car, but you have ruined their opportunity to open their windows,” Fell said.

Law enforcement will still unlock car doors in emergency situations such as when children or animals are stuck inside, officials said. Otherwise, drivers have to call a locksmith.

Glossy baseball cards picturing officers went away for financial reasons, Donohoue said. The department used to have special funding for the program.

When the money went away, baseball cards were cut because of the expense of printing, he said.

Fell said the sheriff’s office researched ordering baseball cards a few years ago.

“Cost wise, it was pretty prohibitive,” he said.

Deputies also quit responding to every car-versus-deer crash because they took manpower away from other duties, Fell said. Instead, drivers can fill out a self-report form to satisfy insurance companies.

Deputies still respond to car-deer crashes if anyone is injured, he said.

'We are approachable'

Officers and deputies said public relations work is worth the effort.

“It really helps break down that wall of what police are about,” Donohoue said. “We’re there to help. So often, the stigma is we’re there to arrest.”

Law enforcement officials are not just bad guys, he said.

“We are approachable, and a child can go to a police officer if they need help,” Donohoue said.

Hirsch said he makes an effort to have positive contact with children while on patrol.

“We don’t want children to think the only time we show up is when someone is doing something wrong,” he said.

Coulter said stickers and bracelets always seem welcome.

“I’ve never had any kids or parents frown upon me if I give them anything,” Coulter said. “I’ve always had a positive response from people.”

Donohoue said people still appreciate the little things.

“I’m one of the lucky guys that gets to hear all the positive feedback from the community,” he said.

Officer read to children while their mother was under arrest

When a Janesville mother was caught shoplifting, she fled the store and left her three sons behind.

Officer Rod Hirsch recognized the 9-year-old, who was with his two little brothers.

“He was crying pretty heavily and was pretty upset,” he said.

Hirsch grabbed some children’s books from in his squad car.

“We sat on the bench inside Farm and Fleet and just read books—me and these three little boys,” Hirsch said.

The incident started when the mother of the boys had tried to take an item off the shelf and return for a refund as if she had bought it, Hirsch said. When the store tried to stop her, she jumped in her car, leaving her kids with a woman who had been with them.

Police caught the mother, who gave officers a phony name, Hirsch said. She also was on probation.

While other officers investigated, Hirsch kept the boys company. They read together for about a half hour, and then he let them keep the books.

Hirsch said giving books to children puts them at ease when they’re caught in the middle of criminal investigations. He said the giveaways allow officers a chance to have positive interaction with kids.

On the day of the shoplifting complaint, Hirsch was glad he had books for those three boys.

“I think they got about six, seven or maybe eight books,” he said.

Last updated: 4:57 pm Thursday, December 13, 2012

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