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Two EC Sheriff's Office veterans vie for Democratic nomination

Dan Holtz (Leader-Telegram)

Jul 26, 2022

EAU CLAIRE — David Riewestahl and Kevin Otto have a combined 38 years of experience working for the Eau Claire County Sheriff’s Office.

And both men tout that experience as a reason why they should advance to the November election to face Republican Don Henning in the Eau Claire County sheriff’s race. Riewestahl and Otto will meet in the Aug. 9 Democratic primary to determine who will oppose Henning.

Longtime Republican incumbent Sheriff Ron Cramer is retiring at the end of his current four-year term and is not seeking re-election. “I have the skills, education and training needed to be sheriff,” Riewestahl said. “I believe in long-term solutions, even when they are difficult or hard.”

Riewestahl and Otto have been with the Sheriff’s Office for 15 and 23 years, respectively.

“I’ve seen a lot of changes, some good, some not so good,” Otto said. “If you’re not part of the solution, don’t complain afterwards. My goal is to be part of the solution.”

Riewestahl is a captain with the Sheriff’s Office and currently serves as the Eau Claire County Jail administrator. During his time with the Sheriff’s Office, Riewestahl has served as a correctional officer, patrol deputy, patrol sergeant, and lieutenant/assistant jail administrator.

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.

After graduating from Altoona High School, Riewestahl spent five years in the Army before attending UW-Milwaukee to earn a bachelor’s degree in criminal justice.

Otto is a sergeant with the Sheriff’s Office and is assigned to the jail. Otto began as a correctional officer at the Eau Claire County Jail in 1999, became a field training officer in 2002 and sergeant in 2010.

Otto received an associate degree in criminal justice from Chippewa Valley Technical College.

In addition to his job as a jail sergeant, Otto is the executive director of the Wisconsin Field Training Officers Association and is active in his local church, serving as church president from 2014-18.

Otto has identified mental health and drugs as among the top issues in his sheriff’s campaign.

“Mental health is an overwhelming problem that affects the jail,” he said. “The jail is probably the largest mental health facility in Eau Claire County and it should not be that way. We are not mental health providers.”

The Sheriff’s Office needs to work with social service professionals and state legislators to find the best mental health treatment options for the jail population, Otto said. Many jail inmates are there because of drug charges, he said. “And it keeps getting more severe,” Otto said. “It’s all out there. We have to find a way to reduce that.”

And just like with mental health, the Sheriff’s Office needs to collaborate with outside agencies to address the drug issue, he said. “The Sheriff’s Office can’t do it on its own,” Otto said.

Otto said a $6 million proposal to renovate and expand the jail should be reconsidered. Additional cells are needed for inmates who are quarantined because of COVID-19. The current 160-bed Huber facility is shut down because of COVID, he said.

“We shouldn’t ask taxpayers to remodel the jail using COVID as a cover,” Otto said. The jail is not fully staffed now. The jail will especially be understaffed for any remodeled and expanded areas, he said. “If we don’t have the staff, we can’t house those people,” Otto said.

Internally, Riewestahl said, the biggest issue facing the Sheriff’s Office is the staff recruitment and retention crisis for both patrol deputies and jail corrections officers.

“How do we find people?” he asked. “It’s tough to compete with the private market, but I don’t want to sacrifice quality applicants for quantity.”

The Sheriff’s Office must keep new hires engaged with law enforcement through both training and development programs, Riewestahl said.

It’s also important for the Sheriff’s Office to re-connect with the community. COVID-19 affected law enforcement and community interaction events, such as the cancellation of things such as “Night Out” and the Kids ‘N Cops holiday shopping events, he said. “We miss that. I did that every year,” Riewestahl said. “I look forward to that. It’s a way to connect, particularly with kids.”

The sheriff must also bring in community members and outside opinions to manage the jail population to prevent potential overcrowding, he said. “We need to determine how we can safely manage the jail population and yet keep the community safe,” Riewestahl said. One option could be alternatives to incarceration, he said. “Everything is on the table,” Riewestahl said. “There’s no such thing as a bad idea. Let’s talk and figure out what works for us and the community.”

The Sheriff’s Office also needs to engage with community resources to reduce the number of people from coming back to the jail, the repeat offenders, he said. “My goal is to come up with a sustainable release plan to get less people in the jail,” Riewestahl said.

Riewestahl said he is the best candidate in the Democratic primary for sheriff because of his Army service, college education, administrative experience, and front line experience as both a deputy and a jailer. He said he is the only candidate who is certified by the state as both a law enforcement and jail officer.

“I have the most depth and skills in these areas,” Riewestahl said. “My desire to give back is at the core of who I am.”

Otto said he is the best candidate in the sheriff’s primary because of his varied leadership experience. He cites his 12 years as a trainer at the jail, being a past president of his church and serving as executive director of the Wisconsin Field Training Officers Association as examples. These opportunities gave him the ability to learn, listen and solve problems, he said. “I’ve had that opportunity and feel I’ve done pretty good with that,” Otto said.

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