Law enforcement officials choose hometown employment
WORTHINGTON -- Many small-town youngsters can't wait to kick the dust from their little corner of the world off their feet and head to the bright lights of the bigger cities. But in Nobles County, a majority of those who protect and serve are home-grown.
At the Worthington Police Department, more than half of the officers are from Worthington or the surrounding area. The same goes for members of the Nobles County Sheriff's Office.
Buffalo Ridge Drug Task Force Agent Nate Grimmius and Worthington Police Department K-9 Officer Brett Wiltrout graduated from Worthington High School within a year of each other -- Grimmius in 1998, Wiltrout in 1999.
Grimmius did one year of college in Worthington and two years at Alexandria Technical College before spending two years at Minnesota State University, Mankato. His goal was to work for the Department of Natural Resources as a conservation officer, so he took classes for law enforcement and environmental science.
Wiltrout earned a degree in law enforcement from Minnesota State University, Mankato, knowing he wanted to be a cop.
"I like talking and dealing with people," he said. "I knew I didn't want to sit behind a desk - I wanted to have changes of scenery."
In May, Wiltrout will mark his eighth year with the WPD. In June, Grimmius will mark his seventh year, having never gone on to conservation work.
"Once I started working as a cop, I liked it," he explained.
Both had applied at their hometown law enforcement department, wanting to be close to family.
"I had done my internship here, my family is here and I liked the department," he explained. "I like who I work with, I like who I work for, and I feel the department is moving in a good direction."
"We have a good department and good officers," Grimmius agreed.
Both believe they have had just as many opportunities in the Worthington department as they would have had if they had joined a department in a big city, but a large part of that has to do with attitude.
"I wanted to get involved with everything I could -- ERU, field officer, K-9 and helping with the reserves," Wiltrout admitted. "There is the opportunity to a lot of stuff, but you have to go after it. You have to come to work wanting to work. And you have to do it from day one."
Grimmius feels the same as Wiltrout.
"At first I just wanted to get through field training, then do my job as best as I can do," he stated. "I wanted to show them what I could do -- show them that I can handle it."
Taking on other roles is a good way to prove yourself, the officers agreed. Getting involved with the Emergency Response Unit, crime prevention and other departmental programs is a good way to show their superiors and fellow officers what kind of responsibility they can be entrusted with and how hard they are willing to work, they said.
While the city of Worthington may be smaller than others, there are the same dangers and the same types of calls. Domestic calls and traffic stops are considered the most dangerous, because it is hard to know what to expect. Because they both came back to live in a place where their families are located, their loved ones are well aware what kind of dangers they face on a regular basis.
"My family was excited at first, but not as much about the drug task force," Grimmius admitted. "The kind of people I face on an everyday basis are predictable -- tweakers, things like that."
"My parents are just happy I have a job," Wiltrout quipped. "My mom is a worry-wart. She'd worry if I had become a dentist. But they trust us to know what we're doing."
A complication of working in your hometown can be people who are in trouble and drop their names in hopes of getting out of that trouble. It isn't fun to have to deal with people they know on a personal level, but rarely have they been asked by people they know to let them go or solve their problems.
"If a person is really a friend, they aren't going to put you in that kind of position," Wiltrout stated. "And you just have to explain that it isn't an option."
From their perspective, enforcing the law in the town they grew up in only helps.
"It is huge," Grimmius said. "The more information you have, the more people you know, the better you can do your job."
Over at the Nobles County Sheriff's Office, Chief Deputy Chris Heinrichs has been in law enforcement since he was 18 years old. Since 1989, his service has been in the area he grew up.
Heinrichs was raised in Worthington, where his father served as a police officer, but in his senior year of high school, the family moved to Henning. His parents bought a grocery store in the neighboring town of Vining. Heinrichs attended Alexandria Technical College, and his first job in law enforcement was as a part-time officer for the city of Underwood. He was carrying a gun and a badge at age 18.
He wanted to work in Worthington, but the rules there stated he had to be 21. He was only 19 when he graduated from the law enforcement program, so he took a job at the Slayton Police Department because it was closer to the place he considered home.
"I would have loved to apply in Worthington, but I wasn't old enough," he said.
His job interview for the Slayton job took place in a camper. The chief in Slayton was camping up north, and he called Heinrichs and asked him to stop by.
"He knew my mom and dad," he explained.
When he started in Slayton, he was making $800 a month. He was promoted to sergeant and had that rank for three years before being hired by the Worthington Police Department.
"I've been blessed in my career," Heinrichs stated. "I was in Worthington for eight months before making sergeant there, and in September 2003 was hired by the Nobles County Sheriff's Office as the chief deputy."
He knew from the beginning of his career that he didn't want to work in a large city. His mother's side of the family was from Minneapolis, and from spending time there he knew he was not interested in that type of lifestyle.
"After 30 years of experience, one thing I've learned about young cops is they go to the metro or they go home," Heinrichs said. "I wanted to go home."
Unlike the officers in the Worthington Police Department, Heinrichs believes there isn't quite as much opportunity for advancement in the sheriff's office, mostly because deputies tend to stay on for a long time.
"When we promote, someone has retired," he said. "So it is harder to advance."
As chief deputy, Heinrichs said his responsibilities these days are more geared toward the operation of the department, although he did work a Saturday night patrol shift a few months ago that had him feeling like a rookie cop again.
"I'm in my office most of the day," he admitted.
The biggest changed he has seen in law enforcement over his 31-year career is in technology, which he said has changed things for the better.
"When I first was assigned a squad car, way back when, there were two toggle switches on the dash," he laughed. "Now they look like an airplane cockpit."
The technology changes are good things, he believes, giving cops more tools that allow them to do their job better.
Another thing that has changed, he added, is attitude.
"There have great strides made in professionalism," he stated.
When Jay Clarke first started applying for law enforcement jobs, he said the market was flooded with newly graduated officers. He sent out resumes to 130 departments, and ended up working for the Appleton Police Department for nine years.
Clarke grew up in Fulda, graduating from high school in 1988. He attended law enforcement classes in Willmar, then did an eight-week skills course in Alexandria. The only metro job he applied for was in Eden Prairie, where there were 300 people vying for one job opening.
"The rejection letter almost beat me home," he laughed.
Working in Appleton and newly married, Clarke got to know a lot of the residents -- including relatives of Nobles County Sheriff Kent Wilkening.
"I was on a bowling league with his brother and had coffee with his mom once a week," Clarke said. "When he got elected sheriff, he asked me to come work here."
The timing was perfect, because Clarke wanted to be closer to his parents. With a 5-year-old son and a 6-month-old daughter, Clarke was anxious for his children to know their grandparents. Being part of a county department was a comfortable fit for Clarke, because he had grown up in the country. But those years in Appleton, where the department fluctuated between three to five cops, gave him some of his best cop skills, he said.
Working in a small town, you wear all the hats," Clarke explained. "Everyone knows you."
Now he lives with his family on a century farm near Fulda and has no regrets about moving home. Starting at the Nobles County Sheriff's Office in 1999, he was a patrol deputy until 2007, served as the county investigator for three years and was promoted to sergeant in 2010.