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Race for Walworth County Sheriff starts

Picknell (click for larger version)
April 08, 2014 | 03:42 PM
ELKHORN — On paper, Undersheriff Kurt Picknell may have the most impressive law enforcement resume in Walworth County.

It is no accident. Picknell said he has been “deliberately preparing” to become the next Walworth County Sheriff. He recently announced his candidacy for the job, and he hopes to replace outgoing Sheriff David Graves.

Picknell has been a cop for 27 years, and he has spent more than half of that time in the top brass of the Sheriff’s Department. He holds a bachelor’s degree in criminal justice and an MBA in public administration. He trained at the FBI National Academy in Quantico, Va., a selective program geared toward people in law enforcement management.

Picknell is also well-respected by his peers. He has been endorsed by every police chief in the county, 10 elected sheriffs in neighboring counties, Graves and the last two elected Walworth County Sheriffs.

He also has been endorsed by Congressman Paul Ryan, Attorney General J.B. Van Hollen, State Sen. Neal Kedzie, State Reps. Steve Nass, Amy Laudenbeck and Tyler August. (See side bar for more endorsements.)

Heroin epidemic

A major challenge to anyone involved in law enforcement is the growing use of heroin, which is now being referred to as an “epidemic” in Walworth County.

The use of the highly-addictive narcotic has grown rapidly in the past several years in Walworth County and throughout Wisconsin.

“Locally, nationally and in communities like ours, we are recognizing that this is a larger problem than we once anticipated,” Picknell said.

He said the drug’s popularity has grown as users become addicted to opiate-based prescription medications.

“(Prescription medications) are priced higher and the availability is more restrictive,” Picknell said. “The alternative becomes heroin.”

Picknell said one of the ways of combating the heroin problem is with the proposed Drug Court. The Walworth County Criminal Justice Coordinating Committee is in the process of developing the treatment-based court.

Drug Court participants, individuals who have been arrested for possessing heroin, can receive reduced sentences if they successfully complete the program. The program will require random drug screenings and require participants to receive treatment for their addiction.

Don’t these programs “coddle criminals?” Picknell laughed at the question. “Comments like that are too simplistic,” he said. “Some people are perfect candidates, others are not.”

He said selecting the right participants is key to the treatment court’s success. He said it is also key to the success of the users.

For a law enforcement standpoint, Picknell said the Walworth County Drug Unit can continue to target heroin dealers.

There is a saying about heroin, “People don’t take heroin, it takes them.” Picknell said he believes that saying has merit.

“With heroin the focus is generally getting more of the drug,” Picknell said.

He said heroin users often commit other crimes — embezzlement, identity theft and burglaries — to support their habits. In addition to drug courts and law enforcement efforts, Picknell said it is important for people to become aware of the drug’s effects and signs of its use.

“It was once thought of as an urban problem,” Picknell said. “It is now a suburban and rural problem.”

Law enforcement career

The 50-year-old was born in Delavan, and he has been involved with law enforcement in Walworth County since 1987.

Picknell became a police officer for a simple reason — he wanted to help people.

At the start of his career, he worked as a correctional officer at the jail, seasonally with the Geneva Lake Law Enforcement Agency and with police departments in the towns of Delavan and East Troy.

In 1991, he was hired as a Walworth County Sheriff’s deputy. After spending eight years on patrol, Picknell quickly climbed through the ranks.

In 1999, he was promoted to sergeant, two years later he moved up the ranks to lieutenant and that same year he was named the undersheriff.

He has been the number two in command for 14 years, which is Graves’ entire tenure in command.

Picknell speaks highly of his soon-to-be former boss. After all, Picknell was part of planning the programs Graves developed during his time running the department.

If elected, Picknell promises a smooth transition. He said not to expect major changes with the department.

“As undersheriff, Sheriff Graves has given me wide discretion in developing the annual budget and other initiatives,” Picknell said.

The job

The Walworth County Sheriff is statutorily responsible for overseeing the county jail and providing civil processing.

However, the job requirements are greater than what is found in the state statutes. There are 83 sworn sheriff deputies in Walworth County, and the deputies provide assistance to other departments — either in the county or in neighboring areas — constantly. In addition to the sworn deputies, there are other civilian employees and the sheriff oversees a staff of 205 people.

When a major crime occurs, Picknell believes that it is important for the sheriff and undersheriff to repsond to the scene. As he is being interviewed about his candidacy, at an Elkhorn coffee shop on his day off, police and ambulance sirens blare by the window.

“I know that if it reaches a certain level, my phone will ring — any time day or night,” he said. “You live the job, you live the profession, and with that you have to find a healthy balance.”

When he goes to the scene as undersheriff, he is prepared to talk to the press or victims of a crime.

Politics and family

The sheriff’s position is a partisan job, and Picknell is running as a Republican for the position. Graves is also republican. In fact, any person who has been elected to countywide office in recent memory has been elected as a republican.

Picknell said he has been involved with the local republican party, and has attended party meetings and functions. How does a life-long law enforcement officer make the transition into being a politician?

“This is a service position and you’re interacting with the public,” he said.

Picknell has been married for 22 years and has two adult children.


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