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EC Sheriff's Office vets seek to be the new leader

Dan Holtz (Leader-Telegram)

Oct 28, 2022

EAU CLAIRE — Two longtime members of the Eau Claire County Sheriff's Office feel they have the right background and ideas to become the next leader of the department.

Republican Don Henning is facing Democrat Dave Riewestahl in the November election for a four-year term to succeed the late Sheriff Ron Cramer. Cramer announced last winter he was going to retire and would not seek re-election. Cramer died unexpectedly in September.

Henning is a lifelong Eau Claire County resident. He started his law enforcement career as a reserve police officer for the Eau Claire Police Department for six years after graduating from the Chippewa Valley Technical College police science program. Henning was hired in July 1995 by the Eau Claire County Sheriff’s Office as a correctional officer. He was promoted to deputy in April 1998 and to detective in 2010. Henning has participated in several county committees and organizations. He is currently the Child Abduction Response Team leader, Drug Endangered Children committee member, Multi Disciplinary Team member, Local Emergency Plan Commission member and firearms instructor. Henning also served as a volunteer firefighter with the Township Fire Department for 30 years. "I felt it was time to serve the community as sheriff," Henning said. "I'm ready to take that step and lead the organization."

Riewestahl, the current Eau Claire County jail administrator, has served as a correctional officer, patrol deputy, patrol sergeant, and lieutenant/assistant jail administrator with the Eau Claire County Sheriff's Office.

While with the Sheriff’s Office, Riewestahl has also taken on the responsibilities of field training officer, conduct report hearing officer, honor guard member, leader and commander, evidence technician, crisis negotiator, computer forensic investigator, recreation patrol officer, and a SWAT operator.

Through his professional work, Riewestahl has been involved with the Criminal Justice Collaborating Council, Community Collaboration & Intervention Workgroup, Opioid Task Force, Crisis Network Committee, and the Equity Diversity and Inclusion Taskforce.

Riewestahl grew up in Altoona. After graduating from Altoona High School, he spent five years in the Army.

"I have the education and training needed. I believe I can win and my service will ultimately benefit Eau Claire County," Riewestahl said. "I believe in the long-term solution even when the road to get there is challenging. That longevity is key."

Both men are concerned about the shortage of staff in the Eau Claire County Jail. The jail is currently short by about a dozen correctional officers.

Henning said he would evaluate the culture in the jail. "The ones that left, why did they leave?" he said. "There's something about that profession that makes it hard to recruit and retain people."

Henning said some correctional officers have told him they would like to be considered as protective service employees, which would allow them to retire earlier. That designation has to be implemented by the state Legislature.

"Let's put civilian officers and sworn officers on the same playing field for retirement," he said.

To retain and recruit correctional officers, the Sheriff's Office has to provide good equipment and training, Riewestahl said.

"We need to coach, teach and mentor the next leaders of our department," he said. Riewestahl's first job with the Sheriff's Office was as a correctional officer and he admits it was tough on him. "It was mentally taxing. You are dealing with people who are at their worst," he said. "It's tough to compete with our private market," Riewestahl said. "There's no sign-on bonuses or other similar incentives in the public sector. There's things the private world can do that we can't."

Riewestahl said the County Board could maybe consider using American Rescue Plan Act funds for financial incentives to recruit employees for the Sheriff's Office.

Henning would like to see the empty fourth pod at the jail completed and used as a transition block for inmates who have been in the jail for more than three months. Those inmates should be provided with alcohol and drug assessments and education, housing and mental health assistance, he said.

"When someone gets released from the jail, this would give them the opportunity to get released with at least a goal or a plan to function within the community," Henning said.

Henning would also like to form a committee of former jail inmates who have been exposed to programming "to find out what works and what doesn't work and find out what's the best approach in that situation."

Increasing jail populations concern Riewestahl as well. The Sheriff's Office needs to work with other areas of the criminal justice system to address that issue, he said."Who keeps coming (to the jail) and why do they keep coming?" Riewestahl said. "What can we do to help those people?"

Riewestahl favors forming an intervention group consisting of law enforcement, social workers and others to better prepare jail inmates for their release. "We need to have contact with everybody so they can get on track," he said of jail inmates. "As sheriff, my goal would be to reduce the inmate population."

Fifty percent of the jail population is out of the jail within 48 hours. Seventy-five percent is out within 10 days, Riewestahl said. "Everybody is getting out of jail," he said. "How do we have successful people in the community?"

Both men want Sheriff's Office personnel to be more visible in the community. Deputies were once assigned townships where they would attend town board meetings. And that practice brought positive feedback from the town boards, Henning said. "That type of face-to-face interaction is important to me," he said. "I think that's important to bring back and have that face-to-face in the community. We need to increase that."

The Sheriff's Office needs to reconnect with the community. COVID-19 has gotten the office away from that. Deputies and other Sheriff's Office personnel need to go to National Night Out and other community events to meet with the public, Riewestahl said. "We need the community. We need the community's interaction, re-engaging and reconnecting with the community," he said.

"At the end of the day, we all live and work in this community. We're part of this community," Riewestahl said. "We need that community bonding to make everyone feel welcome and safe."

Both men were asked why county residents should vote for them on Nov. 8. "I'm someone who's been involved in the community on a variety of levels. I interact with a lot of people," Henning said. A vast majority of law enforcement personnel in the county "support me. I've been told that," he said. "People should vote for a sheriff that has that support and leadership qualities."

Riewestahl said his entire life and career have been community oriented. "The need to give back to the community I grew up in is important. I have the knowledge, skills and abilities, and the experience from the front lines," he said.

"I believe it takes more than just the sheriff to solve issues. Join me at the table. We need people and voices at the table," Riewestahl said. "We have tough decisions going ahead to make. I'm going to be at the table listening and making the best decisions for the community." 

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