by CHRIS ROGERS
Bar fights, drunken drivers, domestic assaults — after spending most of the last 14 years on the night shift, Winona Police Department (WPD) Officer Brad Barrientos is used to running from one call to the next. He was constantly responding to crime after the fact.
“You’d have to always be the bad guy. You’d have the parents or the kids or the girlfriend begging you not to take someone to jail,” Barrientos said.
Now, Barrientos and WPD Officer Anita Sobotta get to be proactive. The two veteran patrol officers are now the WPD’s first-ever community outreach officers (COOs). They are tasked with building relationships and trust and practicing community policing. The pair spent their first couple weeks on the job making the rounds at local schools, businesses, and organizations and helping detectives canvas potential witnesses of an armed robbery.
“I was hoping to and actually I’m already seeing a difference,” Barrientos said of how people view him in uniform. Rather than assuming he is there to get someone in trouble, Barrientos said of his visit to an after-school program, “The kids run up to us and grab our hands to pull us over to where they want to show us their homework.”
“They know we’re there for no reason other than interacting,” Sobotta said.
“We’re not there to always arrest people, and that’s the stigma we’re trying to get away from as police officers,” Barrientos added.
The WPD’s new program is based on successful models in other cities, including the La Crosse Police Department’s neighborhood resource officers. WPD leaders described the program as getting back to the roots of community policing, and they expect a range of benefits: teaching children not to fear police, developing a rapport with citizens that may make them more likely to share concerns, and taking time that patrol officers and detectives don’t always have to look into tips or complaints.
“Typically, law enforcement offers you a squad car and a radio, and that’s what you do,” Winona Deputy Chief of Police Tom Williams stated. “You go from one call to the next … You don’t have time to have longer conversations with citizens.” The COOs have time to talk.
People with a concern or a tip might refrain from calling the police department thinking, “I don’t want to bother them,” Williams said. Maybe the citizen doesn’t think it’s a big enough issue or maybe they don’t feel comfortable calling the police station, but if they know the COOs personally, the citizen might feel differently, Williams stated. “You’re more apt to give information to someone you trust,” he explained.
Barrientos said he and Sobotta have already started having people come up to them with concerns. “Would that information have been shared if we weren’t there?” Barrientos asked.
In addition to building relationships that could lead to reports, the COOs see following up on existing tips as part of their job, as well. The COOs could, for example, take more time to check out reports of a suspected drug house, Williams said. Patrol officers can swing through and check on a suspicious activity, but the COOs would have the time to park for an hour and watch, he explained. The COOs could also do a “knock and talk” at the homes of suspected drug dealers, Williams suggested. “If there’s a neighborhood that feels like there’s illegal activity, there’s a possibility that Brad and Anita go knock on the door and say, ‘Hey, we’re here. There’s been some concerns … If you’re not doing anything wrong, no harm, no foul. If you are, we want you to know we’re aware of it,’” Williams said.
Asked if there was a potential for the WPD to be overzealous with knock and talks, Williams responded that the department would try to corroborate reports of suspicious activity first. The department would not respond to a single complaint from a disgruntled neighbor, he said.
Williams also described the COO program as part of a shift the U.S. Department of Justice’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing recommended, from police having a “warrior” mentality to a “guardian” mentality. “The soldier’s mission is that of a warrior: to conquer … The police officer’s mission is that of a guardian: to protect,” the task force’s 2015 report reads. The report also stresses the importance of procedural fairness in policing, transparency, and citizen oversight.
Though they work across the entire city, Sobotta and Barrientos have desks at the Winona Housing and Redevelopment Authority’s (HRA) headquarters, by the Maplewood Townhomes. Officials for the two governments described it as a win-win: the WPD is very short on office space, and the HRA’s leaders were interested in having police nearby. “We’ve always been of the opinion that we want a presence onsite in our development, and we always said that if they needed space, we’d have space for them,” HRA Executive Director Linda Bedtka said, recalling that years ago there had once been a similar WPD program at the HRA. “Building trust among our residents has been at the forefront; we want them to feel that the police are here to help them,” Bedtka stated. “It’s so much easier to do it when the officers are onsite and interacting with kids. It’s not just they’re here to arrest people,” she added.
The Winona Post reached out to Maplewood residents for this story. “I think it’s a good idea,” Sophina Bouzek said of the COOs. She recalled seeing Sobotta and Barrientos visit an after-school program at the HRA community center that her son attends. “My son always said he wants to be a police officer,” she added.
Another resident who declined to be named said, “It’s nice to be able to have them around because sometimes a lot of things around here get out of hand.” Sometimes police response times to Maplewood take 20 minutes or more, she stated. “And by the time they get out here, it’s all over,” she said.
WPD leaders, sergeants, and officers first proposed the COO program in 2017. The Winona City Council loved the idea from the get-go, but it was not until this year that the council was able to make room for it in the budget. The program costs the city around $94,000 a year to add an additional officer and around $14,000 to equip an old squad car for the COOs. The WPD added one new entry-level officer position and reduced its pool of patrol officers on the day shift by one officer in order to create the two COO positions. Losing one daytime patrol officer is not a big deal because that shift has operated with fewer officers in the past, and if there is ever a staffing shortage, it is relatively easy to get someone to fill in during the day, Williams said.
Sobotta and Barrientos were selected out of a field of seven officers who applied for the COO positions. Sobotta is a 18-year veteran of the WPD who runs the department’s volunteer reserve program. Barrientos served in Rushford before joining the WPD in 2005. He worked as a canine officer for nine years and more recently trained new officers. Both Barrientos and Sobotta have served on the Winona County Emergency Response Team, the local SWAT team.
“It was kind of a blank slate where you can build something,” Barrientos said of the COO program. “We’re learning as we go, too,” Sobotta stated. “We’re in our second week.” She added, “We want it to be a success so we’re going to work hard at it.”
“These two are excellent officers to start the program out,” Williams said. “They work very well without direct supervision. They’ve demonstrated that over and over again over the years. That’s one of the reasons they were selected. I have all the faith in the world that they’ll make [the COO program] a success.”