Balancing act for sheriff
ELKHORN — They haven't received the big-time, national media attention like other incidents around the country. However, Kurt Picknell has seen plenty during his two-plus years as Walworth County sheriff and 26 years overall with the office.
Picknell, 53, officially took the reins in January 2015. And although policing in the Stateline area may differ greatly from big-city law enforcement, it's still law enforcement. That means long hours and dangerous, stressful situations go with the territory.
A couple of examples quickly come to mind for the 1982 Delavan-Darien High School graduate.
“Many situations come to mind over the years just by the nature of the profession, but one of note was serving as the nighttime incident commander during the 2003 multiple-day kidnapping investigation of Hedwig 'Heddy' Braun and the intense time pressure to solve this case, which led to the successful rescue and arrest,” Picknell recalled about the around-the-clock case.
He has been involved in various dive and SWAT operations as a team member and has provided operational oversight support as undersheriff and sheriff.
Another harrowing experience presented a unique set of circumstances.
“I was the overnight incident commander during the historical blizzard of February 2011 that literally shut down the county and southeastern Wisconsin and extended all the way into the Chicago area, leaving highways completely shut down with cars abandoned,” Picknell said. “I added extra staff, held over current staff and called in the National Guard to assist us as a force multiplier, with deputies placed in their vehicles to expand our patrol coverage. The blizzard had life-threatening implications, and Wisconsin Emergency Management highlighted our operation strategy and operational plan.”
So, the job entails preparing for anything at a moment's notice, including those that involve deadly consequences.
According to the Wisconsin Department of Justice database and news reports, there have been eight officer-involved shootings in Walworth County since 2010, seven involving sheriff's deputies such as the one in the town of Geneva in early February.
How has law enforcement responded to and learned from such explosive, sometimes controversial incidents?
“The threat to law enforcement is real,” Picknell said. “They can happen at anytime and anyplace. The other issues include staying prepared to operationally respond to these events in a systematic way that preserves the integrity of the investigation for everyone involved, including public confidence, deliberately continuing normal operational functions during that time of extraordinary demands and focusing intentionally on officer wellness.
“Officer-involved shootings are independently investigated by another law enforcement agency, reviewed by the district attorney and then internally reviewed by our training lieutenant for policy compliance and any future training if applicable,” Picknell added.
Like most departments across the U.S., the Walworth County Sheriff's Office is exploring whatever tools and training necessary in addressing current/future policing operations, including the use of body cameras.
“We will be piloting a body worn camera and squad car camera system this year,” Picknell said. “We are evaluating the operational effectiveness and what the out-year cost implications would be, namely digital storage.”
It is simply the latest in a career's worth of changes that Picknell has witnessed in three decades on the job, a profession that included stops with the towns of Delavan and East Troy and a stint with the Geneva Lake police boat before joining the sheriff's office.
His laundry list of duties during the past 26 years have included corrections, patrol, field training officer, dive team, SWAT, honor guard, special assignment investigator for sensitive crimes, pre-employment background investigator and state-certified instructor for police driving.
Picknell said he doesn't regret anything about his career choice, one in which his inspiration grew from a commitment to serve and the love and support of family and friends.
“(Law enforcement is) simply putting service above self,” he said. “We live in a very desirable area with a variety of natural resources and yet still are close to urban areas in all four directions. Walworth County is in the infancy of urbanizing. Leading effective law enforcement and public safety services directly impacts a healthy community by mitigating conflict and directly empowering the quality of life for citizens.
“My parents Harry and Darlene Picknell, by far,” Picknell said in reference to his biggest influences. “Even though my parents have passed away, I still talk to some of their friends in and around the community, and I thoroughly enjoy the connections that run so deep. My parents were very involved in Cub Scouts and Boy Scouts when we were going through the program. My father also served in the United States Air Force during the Korean War and later served in the National Guard Reserves with the 128th Air Refueling Wing in Milwaukee. These activities and others allowed me to realize positive experiences with law enforcement growing up, creating a calling to serve.”
That doesn't leave much time for his wife, Cathy, a counselor at Elkhorn Area High School, and grown children, Zachary and Irina.
“I deliberately and continually try to achieve a re-balancing of quality time from the professional and personal perspectives, but this is easier said than done,” Picknell said. “The unique and unpredictable nature of the profession often introduces a competing demand between the normal operational duties and rapidly evolving and uncertain events that overtake your personal time with family.
“The universal message back to our families remains constant and sincere: 'We thank you for supporting us and shouldering the demands placed on you when duty calls.'”
But when he gets the chance, his other interests include just about anything outside, such as biking, boating, skiing and hiking.
One activity that combines his personal and professional lives has been the Police Unity Tour, an organization of law enforcement officers and survivors of those who have been lost in the line of duty. Tour members ride their bikes more than 300 miles from New Jersey to Washington, D.C., to raise awareness and funds to support the national monument in the nation's capitol. Picknell participated in the four-day event in 2014.
He was honored to play a small role, and Picknell has carried that torch during his regular duties as sheriff, a result that followed a sometimes-contentious campaign and customary bumps after replacing the retired David Graves, somebody he served with as undersheriff for 14 years.
“He taught me to strive for a personal wellness balance between my professional and personal life even though these positions are nonstop and require your response anytime day or night,” Picknell said of Graves. “As undersheriff, I learned about leading at the executive level for the entire operation countywide and strategically. I learned budgeting, staffing, staff development and strategic operational planning. I interacted with all levels of government. Operating with the authority and the responsibility directly from the sheriff was excellent specific preparatory experience.”
He said there was a smooth transition in power and a system deliberately was put in place that offered stability internally and in working with the public.
“Subsequent promotions, assignments and new hires have been accomplished in a predictable effort toward succession planning ... ” he said. “Decisions are announced within the sheriff's office well before the effective change date to reinforce relevant information sharing and move the agency beyond the current operational decision.”
Picknell said that has led to good communication and high morale throughout the department.
“The staff is very energized and prideful to be associated with the sheriff's office in delivering public safety services around the clock,” he said. “They are the best recruiting ambassadors, attracting high-quality candidates into all areas of the operation.”
Those efforts continue on a daily basis, and Picknell is happy about where the office is heading.
“The patrol division is now decentralized to respond from five geographic areas within the county for increased patrol coverage and reducing response times,” he said about locations at the sheriff's office in Elkhorn and town halls in Whitewater, Darien, Troy and Lyons. “We currently are in the process of achieving law enforcement accreditation at the end of this year through the Wisconsin Law Enforcement Accreditation Group. We will continue to foster collaborative efforts ... and multiple agency-focused efforts on the prevention, detection and apprehension of drug use and drug delivery. We want to continue with a prescription medical drop box in the lobby of the sheriff's office, along with drug take-back days coordinated with the Wisconsin DOJ.”