Use-of-Force is Rare, Community Engagement is Common with the Sauk Prairie Police Department

By Paul Dietmann, President, Sauk Prairie Police Commission


For many years, the Sauk Prairie Police Department has centered its work on the principles of community-oriented policing. Community-oriented policing moves beyond simply responding to calls and writing citations. It requires law enforcement officers to work closely with people in the community to identify and resolve underlying problems that lead to criminal activity.

The Sauk Prairie Police Department’s leadership in the establishment of the Sauk County Adult Treatment Court is a great example of community-oriented policing in action. Chief Strunz and other members of the Sauk County Criminal Justice Coordinating Council created the Court to give people an opportunity to address underlying issues and break the cycle of substance use that often leads to crime. Studies have shown that drug courts reduce crime by as much as 45% compared to other sentencing options.

From the Department’s involvement in the creation of the Safe Community Coalition and the Bar Buddies Program, to National Night Out, to its School Liaison Program, and many other efforts, the Sauk Prairie Police Department’s commitment to community-oriented policing is unmistakable.

Community-oriented policing is only successful if law enforcement is able to build and maintain a high level of trust with the community it serves. It’s taken a long time and a lot of hard work for the Sauk Prairie Police Department to build the degree of trust it currently enjoys in our community. There was a time 20 to 30 years ago when several incidents occurred that caused serious damage to the department’s reputation.

The Sauk Prairie Police Commission is the citizen oversight body for the Sauk Prairie Police Department. The Commission has six members; three from Sauk City and three from Prairie du Sac. It establishes and monitors the Department’s annual budget, interviews and approves police officer candidates, reviews and approves new policies, negotiates labor contracts with the police officers’ union, and bears responsibility for disciplinary actions against officers.

Sadly, the recent killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and others by police officers has eroded public trust and led hundreds of thousands to protest demanding police reform. Even in a small, rural community like ours, we take to heart the frustration being voiced and we are asking ourselves:

• Are we hiring and training officers who are committed to community-oriented policing?

• Are we doing everything we can to ensure that all citizens who interact with our officers are treated with respect and fairness, and that their constitutional rights are being preserved?

• Are we being especially attentive to the needs of the most vulnerable people in our society; those who are prone to discrimination, or who are impoverished, or who suffer from mental illness or substance abuse issues, or who are victims of domestic abuse?

• Have we implemented policies, procedures, and training that make the use of force very rare, and only being used in circumstances in which it is absolutely necessary to prevent injury or death?

Hiring: All candidates for open positions within our department have completed an accredited police academy program. This assures us that candidates have the physical and academic qualifications for the job. Our interview process evaluates candidates’ attitude towards community-oriented policing and their aptitude for building trust with citizens. A selected candidate is sent for a psychological evaluation by a mental health professional before being hired. After hiring, a new officer spends his or her first months on the job working alongside a field training officer who is both training and evaluating the new officer. The new officer is in probationary status for eighteen months, and can be terminated at any time for any reason.

Fair treatment: We hire great people, provide them with the best training we can, and ultimately trust them to maintain the high ethical standards we’ve set for the department when they are out working on their own. If a citizen feels that they have been treated unfairly by one of officers, our process for filing a complaint is detailed on the department’s website and citizen complaint forms are available in the lobby of the police station. We have no tolerance for a betrayal of the public trust; the department has worked too hard to earn it.

Needs of our most vulnerable: Every member of our police force has received crisis intervention training, which trains law enforcement officers how to most effectively interact with people suffering from mental illness. Our officers are also trained in de-escalation techniques, which reduces tension in their interactions with the public and minimizes the risk of having to use force. The department conducts cultural diversity training every year to help officers recognize implicit bias.

Use-of-force: Fortunately, the use of force by our department is very rare. The department has always had a use-of-force policy that describes various levels of force from escort holds through deadly force. Officers regularly receive training on appropriate levels of force to use in a variety of situations. The department handles thousands of calls for service every year, more than 5,000 in 2019. In nearly every instance, officer presence and dialogue is enough to resolve the issue. Deadly force has not been used since 1986. An officer’s weapon has only been unholstered and displayed an average of once per year. Since Tasers were first issued to officers in 2007, they have been displayed 14 times and deployed four times. Pepper spray has only been used three times in the past 15 years.

The Sauk Prairie Police Commission is very proud of our department, its leadership, and the outstanding officers on our force. They have spent decades earning the trust and respect of the community they are honored to serve. We appreciate the support for our officers that has been expressed by citizens in Sauk-Prairie during a time that has been so painful for so many people in our country. And while we remain confident that our department is doing great work in our community, we will continue to ask how we can do even better.

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