For the first time in 20 years and after several top deputies and experienced administrators retired, Columbia County Sheriff Roger Brandner said the department is at full strength after hiring three more replacement deputies and a jailer.
“This was a goal that we wanted to accomplish and we accomplished it in the first year,” said Brandner, who took his oath of office Jan. 7. He said this latest wave of hires is among the best the sheriff’s office has seen. “We have a philosophy that we only hire the best.”
He credited the Columbia County Board for helping to secure funds for equipment upgrades and one additional deputy position this year, making it possible to bring the sheriff’s office staff to 43 people.
“They have made it clear that public safety is important to them,” Brandner said. “They have really come through and hit a home run.”
Jessica Rodenkirch, a former Columbia County dispatcher, was sworn in as a jailer Wednesday, filling a vacancy left after former jail Capt. Darrel Kuhl retired June 3.
Newly sworn-in deputies Mariah Vogel, Brian Poulin and Kourtney Zenk were hired to fill other vacancies created by the retirement of Sheriff Dennis Richards and Lt. Wayne Smith, and the departure of Deputy Greg Kaschinske, who took a new job in June training police dogs at Jessiffany Canine Services in Iron Ridge.
Vogel graduated from the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point and previously served as a police officer in Necedah.
Poulin, who previously worked in the sheriff’s office, returned after he pursued further education at UW-Madison and still felt a calling to police work.
Zenk, a Rio native, earned a degree from Madison Area Technical College and wanted to serve communities in Columbia County.
Columbia County Supervisor Barry Pufahl of Pardeeville, who chairs the county’s Public Safety Committee, attended a swearing-in ceremony Wednesday in Portage.
“I’m very, very proud of our sheriff’s department,” Pufahl said. “They do a tremendous job for our citizens.”
Serve with integrity
Speaking during Wednesday’s swearing-in ceremony, Brandner advised the four officers to always act with integrity on the job and in their own lives.
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“This is a hard job. You’re going to see things and experience things that are going to affect your family when you go home,” Brandner said. “Don’t give up. Be a survivor. Be a fighter. Be an ambassador for this department. Most of all, don’t ever lie. Don’t ever lie in this job, ever.”
The Rev. Greg Hovland led a prayer at the ceremony Wednesday. He advised the new officers to balance their work and home lives and to avoid bringing toxic emotions home with them as they serve the public and protect their neighbors.
“Many people pray for you daily, including myself,” Hovland said. “You are, for many people, the face of our government.”
Brandner said any person law enforcement officers come into contact with could potentially be a juror sometime in the future, and police should follow protocol and conduct themselves respectfully regardless of who might be watching.
“In today’s world, it’s getting hard to find quality applicants, and you guys are that,” Chief Deputy Greg Bisch told the new officers Wednesday.
Brandner said just three years ago, any job opening for a patrol deputy would commonly net as many as 200 applicants. Now, the department is lucky to pull in a dozen candidates with the hope that at least one is qualified for the role.
Part of the challenge in keeping staff on board is pay. For that reason, Brandner said the county has increased starting hourly pay for deputies to $26.35 in an effort to hold onto good officers.
Another roadblock that could be discouraging interest in law enforcement careers is nationwide public scrutiny of officer-involved shootings and more frequent violence against police, Brandner said.
Brandner said none of his officers come to work each day looking for a fight, and he said a vast majority of Columbia County residents support their local police.
About one in every four jail officers go on to become patrol deputies in Columbia County, including Bisch, Brandner said. The reality of working nights, weekends and holidays in the jail deters many jail staff from staying more than one or two years.
“That seems like a constant revolving door,” Brandner said, adding new jailers are hired all the time.
But, he said, several jail officers have stuck it out, become tenured and made longstanding careers out of it.
Brandner said he is confident these four newest officers will do just that as the community will begin to feel the full impact of having a fully staffed and professionally trained sheriff’s department by December.