Janesville55.6°

New rural chiefs aiming to keep small-town feel

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Catherine W. Idzerda
November 4, 2011
— Think Mayberry, except with ballistic vests and no Barney Fife.

Or, if you'd rather have it the other way around, think professional policing in a village where everybody knows everybody else, and you never know who will drop in for coffee.


Rural policing is an exercise in contradictions. Officers know they will be first responders at dangerous incidents and need to have the same level of training as their big-city counterparts.


They also know small-town policing is about establishing relationships, navigating the murky waters of local politics and being accessible to the resident who wants to complain about leaves in his yard, loud sprinklers or people parking on his street.


"I don't like using the word 'Mayberry', but this is a small town, and everybody knows everybody else," said Brad Buchholz, the new police chief in Sharon, population 1,601.


Buchholz has been on the job for about a month, and he's following Chief Wolfgang Nitsch, a popular chief who served the village for decades.


The department, which has five full-time officers plus a three-quarters position, runs seven days a week, 24 hours a day.


"I want to us to be a full-service, professional police department and continue the small town feeling," Buchholz said.


And that means?


"I don't want to do traffic stop after traffic stop. I want us to work closer with the kids in the school, maybe establish a mentoring program," Buchholz said.


"When kids are comfortable with police officers, you're not going to have as many problems down the road," Buchholz said.


He'd also like to create an interview room within the police department and build a garage for the squad cars.


"In the winter, the officers have to scrape ice and snow off the windows," Buchholz.


State law requires interviews to be videotaped. Officers interview suspects in the front office, and Buchholz is concerned about both officer safety and any "sensitive materials" that might be present.


He's aware, however, that the village is struggling with the same financial constraints as other municipalities and can't just write out a check.


Buchholz says he's exactly where he wants to be. He worked at the Fontana Police Department, rising to the rank of lieutenant.


Fontana Chief Steve Olson said Buchholz's background means he'll be less likely to be surprised by what's expected of a small-town chief.


"There's a high expectation of service and bonding with the community," Olson said. "People want to see their police officer drive down the street."


Olson, who also teaches police science at Gateway Technical College, said the role of small-town officers ranges from friendly neighbor to highly trained professional.


"If there's a bat in the house, they call the police department. If there's a burglar in the house, they call the police department," Olson said. "You're in a unique capacity when you're a small town chief or a small town officer."


The population in Fontana can hit 8,000 when Chicago-area residents visit their summer homes. In the winter, it's closer to 1,800.


Many of those suburban Chicago residents aren't used to the level of police service.


"They're usually pleasantly surprised when they call in something small and we're at the door in a few minutes," Olson said.


Those same residents are surprised and delighted when Olson's staff follow up with an arrest or prosecution.


The downside to that easy access? Residents are more likely to demand to see the chief over issues such as their child's traffic ticket, their neighbors barking dogs or strangers parking on their streets.


But over all, the most challenging aspect of small town policing is the danger inherent in being the only officer on patrol.


"I tell my students at Gateway, 'In a small town, you're the first responder when it's serious," Olson said. "You can't sit back and call a supervisor."


If there's a shooter in the school, a domestic violence problem or any other incident where somebody's life is in danger, the officer goes in alone.


Officers from Williams Bay, Walworth and the town of Linn serve as backup, but their responses may be delayed.


Despite the challenges and contradictions, Olson loves his job.


He used to work as suburban cop in a department that rotated beats.


"You'd be driving down the street, and you wouldn't know what was wrong unless a guy was holding out a sign," Olson said.


In Fontana, the streets and people have become familiar.



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