Thirteen years ago on April 15, 2008 we launched Happenings Q&A on the airwaves of AM 1050/WLIP. Serving as a companion piece or an extension of two of our publications, Happenings Magazine and Your Smart Reader, our vision was to reach out and interview interesting people at both a local and national level.
Kenosha County Sheriff David Beth was one of the guests to appear on air with us that very first week and has remained a regular presence over these many years. During the past thirteen years Dave has been a fun and popular interview. He is always candid with his thoughts and observations and on occasion painfully blunt. We believe his candor has served him well having won the last several elections with a comfortable victory margin. However, the one constant or takeaway is that Sheriff Beth doesn’t hold back when there is something serious that he wants to share with our listeners.
This is something he did on the Monday April 19 show following the aftermath of the fatal shooting at the Somers House. Here are excerpts from that interview and one two weeks prior which have been modified for brevity and clarity.
Q: For some time now you have voiced concerns about the direction things are heading, recalling your earlier days with the Sheriff’s Department and how many things have changed?
A: It’s not Mayberry anymore. Our squad cars were a lot simpler back then. Right now it is basically a computerized office. And we are always on camera. We live in a different society right now as far as law enforcement goes and of the 39 years I still love almost everyday coming to work. At 1:30am, yesterday morning, I didn’t like that one, but we’ve got to find more people who still want to come and do this job and care and want to protect people and society is making it more and more difficult all the time.
Q: Is the Kenosha area starting to resemble Milwaukee?
A: I go back to when we had a homicide in Kenosha County one every other year, that was a lot. But now it’s, three in one day. One of my friends who lives in the city of Kenosha she’s surprised because she went outside to talk to me on the phone and said I’m surprised I haven’t heard gun shots in the last 15 minutes. She said usually I hear them. I’m thinking ‘oh my god’ we’re to that point where gun fire in the city of Kenosha is on that regular of a basis that you almost miss it, that something is not right if you don’t hear anything?
Q: Do you think there was a time when we were almost an island or an oasis from crime?
A: I would tout that when I spoke at different places I called us an island where you have a police department, a sheriffs department and schools that all work together and really do a good job. The community, the families and kids, that was a priority for everybody. And right now, it still is, but… we’re falling behind, it’s 100% catchup right now.
Q: What has changed?
A: You have parents that want to move here, they want to get their kids out of violent Chicago or Milwaukee and they say let’s go to Kenosha, they have things under control there. And a lot of times they bring up that culture with them and they bring the gangs and the violence from the inner cities of Chicago. A lot of calls that we have, you get connections to zion or Waukegan area that come up here so they are transient from just south of the state line up. We get a lot of our work from just south of the state line.
Q: CNN is reporting 40 US cities that have experienced a mass shooting in the last 32 days. With all of this frequency are we becoming desensitized to this?
A: We probably can’t even name most of the cities you have on your list right there. You don’t even hear about these anymore… this situation, this person knew who he was going in to shoot. It wasn’t like he went in to a bar or business or a performance and just randomly started shooting people. He targeted these people because they just abused him a short time earlier. Some of those other ones like the one in Las Vegas where they shot (how many people died) from the shooter in the hotel room… This wasn’t quite that. We do become desensitized with this whole issue and a lot of us get to the point where 40 years ago if someone was killed in Kenosha everyone knew about it and it was terrible and I wonder how terrible. If you take our area by itself our homicides, or shootings… I couldn’t even tell you how much it has gone up. I mean do you remember when we had the shooting at Shirl’s? That was how long ago and that was huge. That was devastating it was like having a pandemic here in Kenosha and people were terrified. Now we have had a triple homicide and it’s kind of business as usual. We are moving on and we are getting used to it. Sadly.
Q: People want to settle disputes with guns. What are your thoughts on that?
A: As a former D.A.R.E. officer, I go back to the sixth grader I had 25 years ago at one of the schools he said I know I am going to prison I just don’t know what it is for yet. I said why do you think that because every one of my uncles and my father and everyone in my family is in jail. To have a society or a group of people that believe their going to jail or that their life is so … for our suspect he’s never, if he is found proven guilty he’ll never come out again unless he is in shackles or in a squad car or a transport van. How do you get to that point in your life that you don’t care about what happens to you in the future.
Q: So with this youngster, it is a self fulfilling prophecy?
A: In some communities that is what they believe and a lot of them don’t believe they’re going to live past their 20’s or 30’s.
Q: Doesn’t make for recruitment of officers very easy?
A: Nope, it doesn’t it’s been getting more difficult the last decade. Every year it gets a little bit more difficult. Two years ago we had one of the applicants who made it to the list with me, he had his 3rd OWI… he had his 3rd drunk driving arrest and I read that in his application, I’m going oh my god. He passed all the different steps to get up to my level to the final steps before you do a drug and alcohol and a physical and that kind of thing… but he made it that far and I flat out said as long as I am here we will never get to that point.
In some communities that is what they believe and a lot of them don’t believe they’re going to live past their to 20 or 30.
Q: Is the talent pool shrinking?
A: The top candidates that we had that we have on our current list seem to be outstanding. 39 years ago when I took the test hundreds of people applied to be a sheriffs deputy… hundreds took the test. A testing list lasted a year and a half to two years. The current lists we have about 80 people taking the test and it lasts… we will be retesting again in about 6-7 months. Just to keep refreshing it. Because the top candidates have applied at 3-4 different departments. They are in demand. We are trying to come up with new ways of promoting joining law enforcement. A couple years ago we started doing (I don’t know what to call it) a dog and pony show at the schools. Recruiting. We have to start doing that more.
Q: Did you ever imagine we would be having this conversation today?
A: No, this whole last year has been different than anything else I have gone though in my life. There have been good things out of it and there have been some really terrible things.
Q: Will there be changes in how a subject is apprehended?
A: Yeah, I think more officers will die because everyone will be apprehensive about pulling their gun and they’ll be second guessing before they shoot.
Q: Will some officers retire early?
A: We are able to leave at 50 years old, you have to have at least 10 years on but yeah I picture some if they are going to go they will go.
Q: What are your thoughts on counselors going out on calls?
A: I have no issue with that, if they can get a counselor out to these calls fast enough… I have no problem with that. That is really what we do, if you think of all the different jobs that a police officer has the list is endless. absolutely endless of what we are supposed to do what we are expected to do and how we are supposed to do it. I can’t think of another job, I’m mean surgeons jobs are technical you have to have a steady… you have to have all that stuff, but a police officer has to be able to deal with small children, deal with people in a shooting situation, in an accident situation, in a death situation, solve a burglary, solve a crime. Everything we do, even if you are driving down the road you are responsible for watching the traffic the best you can, listening to your radio and everything else that is going on, and still have (although you are supposed to let them go) you have issues at home that you are thinking of at the same time. It’s a daunting career, it’s a rewarding career, but it is getting more and more difficult.
Q: Police will make mistakes, how do these officers go forward?
A: It all depends on how you look at it and one avenue to take is if an officer is in a situation like this and looking at it from their point of view, I think the state legislatures have to come up with a retirement of some sorts for the officers that are cleared of any wrong doing. For as long as there is going to be law enforcement people are going to pull guns they are going to do all kinds of things and we’re gonna react and we’re gonna take lives. State legislation has to get in and give the officers a form of okay, thank you for your service but we are going to move you on to a different chapter so you never have to go though the threats… it could include training to be a CNC machinist or whatever it is. They would have to figure out how the pension part world work. Would it be a pension representing your two years on the department or your 30 years on the department whatever it is, that would have to be figured out.
Q: The last thing law enforcement want to do is discharge their gun?
A: Oh my god, our perfect day is… nothing happens. Our perfect day is no neighbors get into fights, no one beats up their husband or their wife, there’s no car accidents, no one speeding down the road. Our perfect day is we can find nothing to do except go to the corner gas station and get a cup of coffee and a doughnut. That would be the perfect day.
Q: What is your take on what is happening in the Twin Cities and around the country?
A: These are very difficult times. It is difficult to know what is going to happen any day on your department and not only do we have to worry about what happens in our department we also have to worry about what happens across this country as well. We saw that last year, so yeah, it’s been an extremely difficult year and I feel sorry for Minneapolis. After the George Floyd incident there was civil unrest throughout the entire country. At varying levels. Even in small parts of Wisconsin there was but in some of the major cities there was huge unrest. In Indianapolis, i remember driving by last year and seeing all of the exits closed going into Indianapolis because of demonstrations that were going on down there at the time. And nothing happened down in Indianapolis, so it is a difficult time for communities, for law enforcement and (I want to say) for the black community too. We as a country are in a very difficult time.
Q: Are you looking forward to retirement?
A: Well yes, I mean when you are almost 61 years old you’re kind of at the end of that and looking to move on to something different. But I have enjoyed what I’ve done. And times are different the new generation is going to have to do things differently.
Article & Q&A by Frank Carmichael
Photos by Donny Stancato
(This story first appeared in the 4/22/21 issue of the Smart Reader)