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Where we’re at picking the next La Crosse police chief

Rick Solem

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The hiring process will start Thursday for the next chief at the La Crosse Police Department.

The final day to submit applications was Friday. The city received 12 applicants — down from 21 when former chief Ron Tischer was eventually hired back in 2012.

Doug Happel, on the city’s five-person Police and Fire Commission — in charge of hiring the next chief of police — wasn’t too surprised that number was low.

“I always said, in my many years as associate superintendent human resources for the school district, ‘Ultimately you need one.’’ Happel said Tuesday evening on WIZM. “But, it is a bit concerning, in the whole law enforcement area, that there’s not as many people going into it as we have had previously.”

Happel thinks it’ll be at least a month or two before they have things completely decided.

None of those on the commission — most of whom were there to hire Tischer and current fire Chief Ken Gilliam, two years ago — have policing experience. Happel did say Bruce Jentz was a probation/parole officer.

But, when it comes down to the details involved in policing, those questions are often answered through a background check. When Tischer was hired, the city had the Eau Claire Police Department conduct background checks. The commission may look to that department again for his replacement.

Another example of how those background checks help with the hiring process, before Tischer was hired to be the police chief in Payson, Arizona — he left in late July — that city actually sent someone to La Crosse to talk to Happel.

“I had the sheriff of that community in Arizona stop here at my house and interview me about Ron Tischer,” Happel said. “So when I say the background checks (are thorough) — everybody does it everywhere — but when you’re at this level, it’s extremely intense.

Aside from the usual, like if Tischer had any drug and criminal problems, that Arizona chief asked Happel things that were more involved with the everyday duties of a police chief.

“You get past that and it was working relationships, what has he done in the community, have you had any concerns and things such as that,” Happel said.

The commission, which also includes Roger Plesha, Mary Lund, and Roger Christians, is appointed by the mayor and approved by the city council. The mayor may also have a say in this hiring, more so than just appointing the commission.

“We have invited the mayor to participate as a non-voting member in the interviews, since he will be the supervisor of whomever we hire,” Happel said, “and it’s important that we understand that he’s comfortable with whomever is selected.”

As for what the commission is looking for, according to Happel, he simply said the best candidate. He wouldn’t be swayed by whether that person was local or from out of town. Whether that person was a man, woman or of color.

“I want the best person,” Happel said. When asked if all things were equal, would he be more inclined to lean toward someone local or someone from, perhaps, a big city, he said, “It’s never even between people.”

Aside from logistics, Happel was fairly general on what he might look for in a candidate, saying things like “community oriented policing,” and advancing the neighborhood programs.

“The entire police department has 134 employees I believe — 99 are sworn officers,” Happel added. “That is covering this entire community. So, we want someone who is going to bring all of that together and really have that mesh together and protect and serve this community.”

When the commission does narrow the field down to its finalists, those names will be made public. One of the names not among the 12 applicants was Rob Abraham, who was the assistant police chief before taking over as interim chief once Tischer left.

Abraham posted on Twitter last weekend he did not apply.