Burnett County Sheriff Ron Wilhelm announced last week he is retiring when his term ends on January 2, 2019. He will not seek another term in November election.

[Shortly after Wilhelm made his announcement, two members of the Sheriff’s Department announced they are candidates for sheriff. They are Detective Tracy Finch and Sergeant Ryan Bybee.]

Wilhelm’s decision came as a surprise to many, but Wilhelm said, “I have been weighing this decision for some time, and I came to the conclusion it was best to move on. It’s time to pass the torch. I am comfortable with it. I am at peace with my decision.”

Wilhelm, 66, said another four-year term feels like too long a commitment. “There are some other things I want to do in life,” he said. “After this year I won’t have to go to meetings, or wrestle with guys trying to beat me up, or get shot at,” he said.     

Career accomplishments

Wilhelm has served with Burnett County Sheriffs Department for 27 years, first as a road deputy and later as a detective before becoming sheriff in 2014.

“Serving the community is number one,” Wilhelm said. “It means a lot when you can help people out. I worked as an investigator on sensitive crimes like sexual abuse. Getting children and other victims of sexual abuse into a safe environment was the main focus, and then putting perpetrators away or getting them help.

“There are people in our county who have lost a lot of money to scammers,” Wilhelm said. “Recovering money for people who have been taken advantage of was satisfying work,” he said. “I worked with various federal agencies —U.S. Marshalls, The FBI, the Postal Service and a host of others.

“We put a lot of people in prison. We helped solve a huge case that wound up being several hundred thousand dollars. It started in Grantsburg with a guy who stole IDS from six different people in Minnesota by stealing mail from mailboxes, creating new accounts in their names and forging checks. Working with the postal system we were able to send him away to a federal position.

“One case like that can take months of work to create spreadsheets and documents, get subpoenas, working with multiple banks. It was countless hours for me and others, and people don’t realize how much work goes into creating a case like that. It was a combined effort of a lot of different agencies.

“Getting to the bottom of that case started with one sales clerk in Siren who alertly recognized two forged checks. Like so many crimes in our area, that case was fueled by methamphetamines. The crimes cost a lot of people and businesses a lot of money.”

K9 Program a great success

Wilhelm says the private efforts by Burnett County citizens to fund the K9 program for the sheriffs department was an entirely private program with no taxpayer money. “It was a two-year effort by many dedicated people to bring that dog to our department. Many sheriffs department officers and staff put in lots of hours too, including on their own time, to make that program a reality. It has been a great success by every measure. The dog is a real asset to the department and our county. I want to thank everyone involved who helped make that happen.”

Changes in technology

Cell phones were just coming into use when Wilhelm started as a deputy. Computers were pretty basic back then. Today’s phones have much more power than those computers. 

“Technology has both enhanced law enforcement and has been a detriment to it, depending on how you want to look at it,” Wilhelm said. “Overall it is created a better, safer environment for people and law enforcement. Technology has created efficiency for the department, but it has also brought us a lot of work. Internet money crimes, internet crimes against children, the ‘sexting’ that goes among kids — it all takes time to investigate and track down. 

“Back in the day, we didn’t have any such thing as a drone or a GPS system. Now we have GPS monitors we can put on offenders. The intoximeter we use today has improved. Fingerprint ID today uses no ink and takes an image of the entire hand and immediately connects to a national database. It often tells us who the person is in a matter of seconds.

“Squad cars are so much better today. They are safer and equipped with so many more features that help our officers. Our weaponry today is safer and easier to use. Protective vests today are so much lighter, stronger and more comfortable to wear.”

Change in attitudes toward law officers

Wilhelm says in many ways he has seen improvement in the public attitude toward law enforcement and officers. “I started in law enforcement in the 1970s. Young people hated cops back then. I started working in the South. There was a lot of animosity and disrespect toward law enforcement. 

“Society expects cops to be perfect, be we are human and humans make mistakes. Sometimes there are errors in judgment when making a split-second decision. Then you have attorneys who can sit there and ponder and criticize a decision that an officer had to make in a split second. But that’s our world today. 

“What we see today isn’t so much disrespect toward law enforcement as it is disrespect for each other. We in law enforcement just happen to be one of the different facets or groups that face it. Look what teachers are going through. Social media is good in some ways but gets used in ways that hurt society and individuals. On the positive side, our department’s Facebook page gets lots of attention. People are willing to help us with information when they can.” 

High numbers of crimes by a few

Wilhelm says Burnett County, northwest Wisconsin and other parts of the country are seeing high numbers of crimes committed by a small number of individuals. “It all goes back to meth,” Wilhelm said. “We in law enforcement try to contain the meth problem, but we can’t correct it. That is a community and society issue that we all need to work together on.

Challenges for the next sheriff

“Preserving the office of the sheriff is an increasing challenge that will face the next sheriff,“ Wilhelm said. “There are people in government who challenge the power and authority of the sheriff. I recognized this as soon as I took office. I have had some battles with people who want to direct the sheriff office. The new sheriff will find that out. The sheriff is elected by the people and reports directly to them, and serves at the will of the people.”

“Staffing the department is another big problem the new sheriff will face. In the four years, I have been sheriff, there has maybe been a week or two when we have been fully staffed,” he said, “where we have had all our dispatcher/jailers in place and all our deputies in place. Trying to find qualified people and then to keep them is a huge challenge.

“People are getting out of law enforcement and fewer young people are going into it. We have neighboring counties paying substantially more than Burnett County pays, and benefits are better. Law enforcement work requires working weekends, nights and holidays. Law enforcement is a 24/7 operation. Finding people who are willing to do that, at the expense of the personal or family time, is getting harder to do. They are working on holidays or miss Christmas with their family. They miss deer hunting season or a family vacation because of staffing. 

“Sometimes new recruits don’t realize how big a part of the job that is, and when they do, they start looking for other lines of work.

Fixing the jail situation

Wilhelm adds, “The third thing that is going to challenge the new sheriff is taking a close look at our jail and communications center. They are going to have to work with the board and make a decision on whether to build a new facility. The board realizes the funds are available to build a new jail. They can take on the debt to build a new building. The problem is staffing it — both finding the people to work there and paying them sufficient salary and benefits to keep them.

“Many nights we have 50 inmates to house and a jail that holds only about 25, so we are housing half of them elsewhere at $40 per night per inmate. If Burnett County builds a new jail, it will need to split the dispatcher/jailer job into two positions, and that adds a lot more staff.’

Burnett and Washburn counties are two of the final four Wisconsin counties to have a jailer/dispatcher position. Most counties have split those roles.

“We have this state levy cap that prevents raising the taxes to hire and pay enough people to staff that jail and dispatch center 24 hours per day. It could run into a million dollars per year to run a new jail, the county simply doesn’t have the money to do that. 

“Our jail is more than 30 years old, one of the oldest in the state. We run into a lot of problems with the state Jail Inspector. We get a lot of notices for things we need to change or improve, but the jail is so old that we simply cannot meet of those requirements.

‘Excellent Candidates’

In the upcoming race for sheriff, Candidate Ryan Bybee announced as a Republican candidate for sheriff while Detective Tracy Finch announced as an Independent candidate. That leaves the field open for another candidate to announce as a Democrat.

Wilhelm said, “Both candidates for sheriff are well qualified and intelligent people. We have worked together for years and I think both would serve Burnett County well. Whoever the next sheriff is, may God Bless them.”

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