A few weeks back, I wrote about an upcoming Argus project on rural law enforcement. That post came after a ridealong with Hanson County Sheriff Randy Bartlett.
Bartlett is a veteran lawman who moved to Alexandria and took a job with the Sheriff’s Office after a full career that started with the Los Angeles Police Department and ended after a long stint in a Twin Cities suburb.
On Monday, I rode along with the youngest Sheriff in the state.
Douglas County’s Jon Coler is 26 years old.
Coler applied for and was appointed to the county’s top law enforcement job just two years into his career, which started with the Chamberlain Police Department.
The U.S.D. grad is a native of Armour, which is the county seat. He told me that he’s always wanted to be a cop, even as a little kid. He also says he’d hoped to return to Armour eventually, but freely admits that “it maybe happened a little quicker than I was planning.”
Coler also admits that he’s had a “steep learning curve” coming in as Sheriff. The Sheriff isn’t just responsible for law enforcement. The Sheriff has to manage a staff, serve civil papers and do community outreach (he helped a handful of Delmont residents set up a neighborhood watch in February).
There are more specific challenges in Douglas County, as well. For one, the Sheriff’s Office is the only agency around. Corsica no longer has a police department. Delmont’s part-time department dissolved a few years ago. Armour Police Chief Neal Moad took a job as an investigator in neighboring Charles Mix County this year and later resigned his Armour position. Instead of replacing Moad, Armour voted to contract with the Sheriff’s Office.
That means if Coler is on duty and dealing with an issue in New Holland, he’s the one who’ll respond to a call in Delmont. That’s a 45 minute drive at regular speeds.
Then there’s the trust issue. There’s been plenty of turnover in Douglas County in recent years, and not just for the typical “long hours and low pay” reasons.
Coler replaced a Sheriff named Troy Strid, who gave up his law enforcement certification after he was indicted on embezzlement charges for selling surplus county property. He was acquitted in 2011.
Delmont’s former officer, Rob Hotchkiss, gave up his certification the following year. Hotchkiss, who had also been a Douglas County deputy, pleaded guilty to grand theft by deception for submitting fraudulent insurance forms in 2008.
So not only did Coler show up with a lot to learn, he showed up with a lot to prove. He knew that, too. About a year and a half ago, Coler told the Mitchell Daily Republic that he’s committed to rebuilding trust with the county’s 3,000 residents.
It’s going to take a while to get the public’s respect back,” he said. “I hope to get our image built back up and let people know we’re out doing whatever we can to enforce the law.”
Residents in Corsica, Armour and Delmont gave Coler high marks so far, even as they acknowledged the learning curve issue. He’s a quiet guy, which they seem to like, and that came up more than once.
Larry Wold, the owner of an Armour taxidermy shop, said he’s been impressed with the way Coler carries himself and says he has confidence the Sheriff will live up to the county’s expectations. Teacher Renee VanDerWerff was happy to see the Sheriff taking an interest in the community by coaching a youth basketball team. Delmont bar owner Jean Cantrell said she’d like to see Coler stop in and strike up conversations with her patrons more often (that way they wouldn’t be scared when he does show up), but that was only after saying this:
“He’s very quiet,” she said. “You know he’s got the authority, but he doesn’t abuse it.”
So far, so good, right?
In this video, Mr. Coler explains why it helps and hurts to be a hometown officer.