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Pete Gehring retires after 43 years in law enforcement

By LeAnn R. Ralph

COLFAX — By any standard, 43 years is a long time.

In law enforcement — 43 years is an exceptionally long time.

And so it was with 43 years of law enforcement to his credit that Colfax Police Chief Pete Gehring officially retired on May 23.

Gehring served as police chief in Colfax for the past 15 years.

“I was in college majoring in Sociology when I saw an ad for a new police science program for CVTC, so I transferred to that program,” Gehring said.

He started his career as a police officer in Durand in 1971. After that he returned to his hometown of Bloomer and served with the police department there for 19 years. From Bloomer, he went to New Auburn, and from there, he came to Colfax.

Over the years, Gehring has seen a tremendous number of changes in law enforcement, from record keeping and computers, to radios, to weapons, to changes in the law, and changes in police squad cars.

“I never remembered having an interest in law enforcement. But after I got started, my mother was digging through some old pictures, and when I was four years old, I received a tricycle as a Christmas gift that had a windshield on it that said, ‘police.’ It had an antenna, too … I guess somewhere back there, it might have been a concept,” Gehring said.

At his first job in Durand, Gehring was paid $500 per month with no benefits.

His first paycheck in Bloomer amounted to $2.37 per hour.

He was among the first class to graduate from Chippewa Valley Technical College with a degree in Police Science.

Along the way, he served as an EMT in Bloomer for 25 years and as Deputy Coroner in Chippewa County for ten years.

“To find out the cause of a death when there was no witness to it got kind of complicated sometimes,” Gehring said.

“I once had a case where a person had shot himself under the chin with a 30.06. He was not identifiable. I had to use my investigative skills to determine who this person was. He had no identification on him. So, I found it interesting from a work perspective. These things sound gruesome, but someone has to do the job,” Gehring said.

License

Graduating from the first Police Science class at CVTC was not the only first in Pete Gehring’s career.

“When I started to work in Bloomer, I was the first officer who had to take a test for the job. What they did before that was, they looked for the biggest, meanest guy who could handle a crowd, protect himself and others, and that’s who they wanted on the police department. It was brawn before brains,” he said.

“When I applied for the job, there were 27 who took the test. Very few passed. Then we went through the interview process. When I first started, we were not required to be licensed as a police officer the way we are now. Training and standards were not in existence. But I had a proactive chief who sent me to school anyway to get my license,” Gehring said.

The Bloomer police chief sent Gehring to the police academy at Fort McCoy, which was sponsored and taught by the Wisconsin State Patrol.

“At that time, it was only six weeks long. Now it is at 500 hours, and they are thinking about increasing it,” he said.

Retirement

Gehring’s May 23 retirement was actually the second time he retired as police chief in Colfax.

The first time Gehring was 56 years old and retired because of a catch in the state’s retirement code.

“If you die before you retire, the state gets to keep half of the retirement. Employers and employees typically pay half. If you die before you retire, the other half would go into the (state’s) general fund,” he said.

Within about a month of his first retirement, Gehring’s father and father-in-law both died.

“When I retired, I had no intentions of coming back here. Gary Stene, who was then village president, called me and said they did not like what was out there and available. He asked if I would be interested in coming back. My initial reaction was that retirement had not been very good to me, too much funeral time. So, yes, I was interested in coming back,” Gehring said.

When he returned to Colfax as police chief, Gehring started all over again with vacation and sick time. And he bought his own health insurance. And because he was technically retired, the village also did not have to pay retirement benefits.

All together, because of the insurance and retirement benefits, Gehring estimates that the village saved more than $100,000.

In addition to working as the police chief, Gehring served as the village clerk for six weeks before Jackie Ponto started as the administrator-clerk-treasurer.

He has also driven a snowplow and was the  “third person” needed for confined entry when village employees had to go down into a manhole.

“I was always willing to do something beyond my job description,” Gehring said.

Public perception

Serving in law enforcement tends to put police officers in a position where they often see both sides of the public’s perception.

“No one likes to see a police officer until they need one, and then it’s ‘what took you so long?’ The guy doesn’t like us hanging around his neighborhood because we might catch him at something, unless there’s been a prowler around, then he’s worried about his kids. They don’t like to see us at schools because they think there’s a problem, unless there is a problem, then they are happy for us to be there. The bars never like us to be in there discouraging their customers, unless there’s a fight going on, and again, it’s ‘what took you so long,’” Gehring said.

Over the years, Pete Gehring says he has been told a number of times, “I wouldn’t do your job for any money in the world.”

Until, of course, it comes time to talk about a raise for law enforcement officers.

“I hear that a lot — ‘I wouldn’t do your job for any money in the world — but don’t expect me to pay you a lot to do it.’ The same one who is grateful for our services today is the same one who is asking their elected officials to cut our pay the next week because they have forgotten already,” he noted.

Street patrol

Time spent patrolling is time well spent for a police department, Gehring said.

“There is no way you can put a value on our presence. So when people say nothing ever happens in Colfax and why do we need so much law enforcement, you need to consider what we have prevented because we were there,” he said.

Unfortunately, that’s also the kind of thing that cannot be calculated or predicted, especially at a time when crime is increasing.

“The increase in crime we’ve been experiencing over the last few years is very alarming to me … serious crime has escalated, and there’s nothing we’ve been able to pattern in regard to that. Most of the serious crime is not the preventable kind, like burglaries. It’s the sexual assaults and the domestic batteries, the crimes against children,” Gehring said.

“It’s very frustrating for law enforcement when we feel that the district attorneys and the judges are not doing their part of the job. … I’ve told my officers many times over the years, once you’ve made your arrest and you’ve got your paperwork done and it is in the hands of the district attorney or the hands of the judge, you have completed your part of the task and you cannot be discouraged by how it turns out,” he said.

“I have tried to stress that (to the Colfax Village Board) and to other places where I have worked that you can’t put a monetary figure to what you prevent. If my budget costs $10,000 more a year, but we prevent 15 more crimes a year, is that worth it? The people who are not being robbed or are not being burglarized think it’s worth it. But that quickly changes. Today they are happy to have us because we are helping them. Tomorrow when they don’t have a problem — it’s cut the budget and save me tax dollars. And that’s never going to change. But that’s something the public has to know and understand. If you don’t have any law enforcement, crime will run rampant,” Gehring said.

“You can’t expect the county to be here all the time to protect the citizenry. They don’t have the time or the resources. Over the years I have tried to be conscious of the budget, but there’s a certain cost to feeling safe in your community. That’s what people have to understand,” he said.

Residents of the community “can help us by letting us know things that are happening in town. Too often we hear about it a couple of days later when it’s too late … if they share what they know with us, we are that much better. Instead of a five-person department, we are a 1,005 person department. People have to understand that they can help us do our job better, and that in the long-run, it may save them money,” Gehring said.

Profound effect

Two changes over the past several decades have greatly changed law enforcement.

The first change relates to the way police officers are hired.

“Law enforcement used to be totally by seniority. When you were hired by a department, you knew your place by seniority. You knew how long you were going to have to wait to get to the next rank. If you weren’t happy with that, or if everyone was of a similar age, you might have wanted to consider relocating,” Gehring said.

“When it was changed to a competition of the ability to write a test or verbally convince a promotion board, or to influence a mayor, or a village board, or a chief, officers then found they could promote themselves by discrediting other officers, and it created discord from within,” he said.

The second change that had a profound effect on law enforcement was the change in the legal drinking age.

“When they abolished the 18-year-old beer bars, it greatly altered all of law enforcement. When there were 18-year-old beer bars and no off sale until you were 21, 18-year-olds and under did not associate with 21-year-olds. They did not go to the same places,” Gehring said.

“Once it changed to where 18 year-olds could purchase off-sale, there were a lot of 18-year-olds who had friends that were 17 or 16… (so) it was easier to procure beer for younger people, and the younger people couldn’t handle it as well. It increased accidents and citations and I suspect it increased deaths. They never asked law enforcement about their opinion. Years later they tried to make some minor changes, but it was too late. All of the 18-year-old beer bars were grandfathered into liquor licenses. They didn’t need to be beer bars anymore. And now all of a sudden, you’ve got people from the age of 14 to 21 that are all associating together, and the innocence of youth is going out the window,” he said.

“Those two things probably ended up with the biggest impact on law enforcement,” Gehring said.

Cases

As you might imagine, over the years, Pete Gehring has investigated or was involved in trying to solve just about any kind of a case you could think of.

One particular case was a “trial by fire” for Gehring as a new, young police officer.

“I was hired in April (in Bloomer), and that following December on Christmas Eve, I was working in Bloomer. I was driving up Main Street when I noticed the priest rectory and what I thought was fancy Christmas lights around the window. A second look showed that it was a fire. I had to enter that building and wake up the two priests from their sleep and get them out of the building. The smoke was very bad. You couldn’t see. I ended up in the hospital for a week after that for pneumonia caused by the smoke inhalation. That was my first Christmas Eve on the job,” he said.

Not long after that, the police department received a call about an attempted suicide. That particular case emphasized there are always others impacted by any particular event and especially when there are children involved.

“The house was already full of people sympathizing with her because she had taken drugs and alcohol. What they overlooked was the fact that her two sons, who were two and three years old, were oblivious to what had happened. They were out in the kitchen. Sitting on the kitchen cupboard with their feet in the sink, eating the only edible thing they had in the house. They were spoon feeding themselves and sharing a jar of mustard because mom spent all her money on drugs and alcohol and not on child care,” Gehring said.

“And that’s tough stuff for a dad or for anybody to understand. When I tried to call social services to come and help with this, I found out how lacking they were when it came down to the nitty gritty. It seemed their preoccupation was in maintaining their employment and not in helping people,” he said.

Snow blower

And then there was the case of the car vs. snow removal equipment.

“One case I will always remember. Bloomer had a large snow blower for cleaning snow in the winter for blowing snow into the back of a truck. The snow blower itself was probably 12 feet wide. It looked like a giant snow blower that you would walk behind on the sidewalk,” he said.

“A car was coming down the hill and couldn’t stop and drove right into the auger. And as the two kids were sitting in the car and the auger was chomping on the front of their vehicle, they got a little concerned about it. I issued them a citation for driving too fast for conditions. I saw our court process at its best that time. I was never called to the (witness) stand to explain that citation,” Gehring said.

“Interestingly enough, they were found not guilty because the judge thought I should have issued the citation for failing to have the vehicle under control. Both are the same statute. It was my first experience with how laws can be manipulated to serve certain purposes. It’s where I developed my attitude where I did my job and now it’s up to the district attorney or the judge. What they do with the evidence is on them and not on me. I suspect (the vehicle occupants) learned their lesson. They got quite a scare and a ruined car out of it,” he said.

Radios and computers

During Pete Gehring’s 43 years in law enforcement, much has changed about the way the job is done, the kinds of crimes that are becoming more common, and the equipment used on the job.

Consider the change of going from typewriters to computers.

“I can remember using three sheets of paper and two layers of carbon to write reports, so there would be a copy for everyone who needed one. All of our files were cross-referenced by name or by incident, so that if you were looking for a particular incident, you could find out who was involved in that, or if you were looking for a name, you could find out what they were involved in. A lot of volume. It was cumbersome. But it was all we had. We did not have the luxury of computer storage that we have now,” Gehring said.

“Radios were way different. We had the advantage over bad guys because we had them, but it was nothing like we have today. When I first started, we were primarily dispatched through the county. But the dispatcher also served as the jailer, so if that person happened to be booking someone into the jail, there was no dispatcher,” he said, noting that at his first job in Durand, the dispatcher went home at midnight, “and you were it. There was nobody else out there.”

“Radio communications were really something different. In Bloomer we had an answering service. For years and years it was in the funeral home, because they had to have someone answering their calls. After a while, when the funeral homes didn’t want to deal with it anymore, they hired a private guy who had the radio equipment in his home, and he would dispatch from his home. During the day, it was at city hall or the secretary at the police department, but nights and weekends, it was out of a private home,” Gehring recalled.

Cumbersome

Radio equipment was much larger when Pete Gehring first started in law enforcement.

“The radio equipment was very antiquated compared to what we have today. The portable radio was so big and cumbersome, you couldn’t put it on your belt. So we had a shoulder harness to hold this great, big, huge portable radio that had an antenna that was over a foot long. And we would carry that with us when we were on foot patrol. Once again, good luck to get it working, especially if you were behind a building. It was huge and heavy,” Gehring explained.

“It’s almost kind of comical now how small and compact they are compared to that. You probably could get eight of today’s portables in the same (size) area,” he said.

“We were required to do a lot of foot patrol. They were trying to save gas and to make the vehicles last longer. So we did a lot of foot patrol, checking doors … when I first started, the weather didn’t make any difference. You went out and did that foot patrol, no matter what. A lot of time it was just for public relations. To be available to people on the street for questions. We didn’t have regular office hours, so it wasn’t like someone could come to the office to ask a question,” Gehring said.

Light signal

Back in the “good old days,” light bulbs took on additional meaning for police officers in Bloomer.

“When I first started working in Bloomer, they still had, in the middle of the main intersection downtown, there was a light suspended by wires. And whenever the dispatcher needed a police officer, and we weren’t available by radio for whatever reason, they would turn that light on, and you would know it was time to call the dispatcher to see what they needed. Quick response wasn’t necessarily the luxury that we have today. And it was only the one light. It wasn’t like you could go all over town and be able to see it. But it would stay on until we answered it,” Gehring said.

Ancient history

“I started law enforcement in ’71. To me it doesn’t seem that long ago. To young people, I’m sure it seems like ancient history. But to think that just in that short period of time ago, things were so different. I don’t know if people can appreciate that too much,” Gehring said.

“Our squad cars were nothing fancy. There were basically mom and pop cars with very few extras. If it had a radio at all, it was an AM radio … The cars didn’t have carpet. They had rubber mats. No cages. So when we transported prisoners, we had to transport them in the front passenger seat where they could be easily accessible … I always had an advantage. Due to an injury, I carried my gun on the left side, so it wasn’t close to them, like it would be for most right-handed people. So I had a little bit of an advantage,” he said.

“We had a removable light on the top of the car. They called them gumballs, because they looked like gumball machines. There was a key to it so you could take it off or put it on, depending on if you wanted a marked or unmarked car. You had just the one light on the top. When we took the light off, we had a dash light we could put on the dash,” Gehring said.

“I can remember one occasion when (a driver) was speeding, and all I had was the dash light. We went out in the country. Then I noticed the state patrol fell in behind me. Obviously I thought he was there to assist me with this stop. The guy was on a motorcycle. We weaved out of town for a ways and down a dirt road. I was able to pass him. And as soon as I got beyond him, I swung the car sideways to block his path. He thought he could just go the other way, but the state patrol car was there. I thought, ‘gee, this is really good teamwork!’” Gehring recalled.

Or at least he thought it was good teamwork until he talked to the state trooper.

“He didn’t have any idea about the motorcycle. He was chasing me. I said, ‘Well, didn’t you see my red light?’ And he said, ‘No, I thought it was a reflection of my red light in your mirror.’ So he had no clue we were chasing a motorcycle. He was just chasing me. The end result was that we were able to stop the guy,” he said.

Marked cars

“I think it was 1975 before we first got our first, what we would consider now, a marked squad car. The chief bought a shield that would stick onto the door. They were very generic. Almost every department went to something like that. It had the name of the city on the shield, but everybody had the same thing. It identified the car, and then we had a fully marked car,” Gehring said.

“For a short period time, there were some statutes that required a fully marked car to make certain kinds of arrests… it’s still preferable to have a marked squad. But even unmarkeds have their role,” he said.

“When I started, we didn’t have individual badge numbers. We had a number for each car, and so everybody used that same number. The dispatcher didn’t know who was working. All they knew was that car was out working.”

Military surplus

“When I first started, we carried military surplus. Towards the end of World War II and the Korean War, we had a lot of weapons left over, so they sold them cheaply to police departments. We had a Smith and Wesson Model 10 revolvers, 38 caliber. The butt of the gun had the lanyard ring because the military had a lanyard or a string that attached to the gun so they couldn’t lose it. And some of our guns had those. They were quite old,” Gehring said.

“Weaponry at that time wasn’t a big deal. Some departments had shotguns and some didn’t; 38 revolvers were the norm, and pretty much everybody carried the same. But then, the bad guys didn’t have the weaponry that they have now,’” he said.

“I can remember when I went to my first semi-automatic, it was a big deal, because I had way more rounds of ammunition at my disposal. But I had to buy my first one because the departments had 38s, and if you wanted anything different, you bought your own. Otherwise you used what the department had,” Gehring said.

Colfax currently has two long guns received through a grant from the federal government, an M-14 and an M-16, both from the Vietnam era, he noted.

No different

“Law enforcement is no different in Colfax than it is in Chicago, or New York, or LA. It’s all based on per capita. We have the same type of crime. But because so many millions fewer people are in the community, the crimes happen less frequently. But there’s nothing that happens in those cities that there wouldn’t be the potential for happening here. You can’t rely on this being ‘little old Colfax where nothing ever happens,’” Gehring said.

“We have seen that over the past two years with the escalation of serious crime. It’s no longer ‘little old Colfax.’ It’s nice that people can feel safe in their homes. And it’s nice that they can think, ‘nothing ever happens in Colfax.’ But they also need to be realistic that yes it does. Tomorrow our school could be Sandy Hook. Or our church could be the Sikh temple in Oak Grove. There is no safe place in the world anymore. There is no little community that’s going to be Mayberry forever. When you’ve got Gang Bangers coming out of Minneapolis to sell drugs, they don’t go by Colfax rules. They go by big-city gangland rules. So things could turn sour in a quick hurry,” he said.

“We had an incident several years ago when a guy and his girlfriend were not getting along. He had five bombs. They were made for aerial signals, but they were enough, those five could have easily blown the house apart. And he was in Colfax. He used meth. He barricaded himself in a house in a residential area, and he was going to blow the place up. We had to evacuate the neighborhood, go door to door. We had to do negotiations with him. It turned out well. But it could have gone bad. If he had detonated those, it would have affected a half a block area in a residential area. It was in the middle of the night, (and the neighbors) were fast asleep in their beds. They did not know the danger they were in,” Gehring said.

Advice

When asked if he had any advice for the new police chief in Colfax — or for Colfax residents — Pete Gehring summed it with one word: respect.

“Respect is a basic in law enforcement,” he said.

“I would give the new police chief the same advice I gave to myself — treat everyone the way you want to be treated, and treat everyone the same, no matter what their position,” Gehring said.

And as for Colfax residents, “I would tell them to accept the new police chief into the community, and treat him like you would anyone else,” he said.