Clinton County’s new sheriff, Bill Greenwalt, was involved in law enforcement before he could see over the dashboard of a squad car.
“I was probably the only 10-year-old kid who knew what civil defense was,’’ he said.
Greenwalt remembers growing up at the Clinton County Sheriff’s office. His father was Larry Greenwalt, a longtime lieutenant on the force, and young Bill was a fixture in the office, spending time with dispatchers and deputies.
But it was only recently that he had an epiphany about the many times he accompanied his father and his peers to the shooting range for target practice.
“I was probably 5 or 6 years old,” Greenwalt remembered. “I finally discovered why he took me to the range. Back then they had revolvers, and they’d drop the rounds out. The officers never wanted to bend over and pick up the rounds, so when little Bill came around, guess who picked up all the rounds?”
Career in law enforcement
Each scar along Greenwalt’s arm tells a story. Most of them are a result of Greenwalt’s first job as a 16-year-old. As a part-time dog catcher for the city of Clinton, he endured a fair share of bites and scratches.
But, despite the blood, the job further piqued his interest for a career in law enforcement.
That’s why, after high school, he became the city of Clinton’s first public service officer, a non-sworn position that aids in traffic control, accidents, and other duties.
He was soon thereafter hired as an officer for the Clinton Police Department, which was the beginning of a 30-year career that included roles on drug task forces, SWAT teams, K9 handling programs, street patrols, and undercover drug-enforcement operations. He served as the department’s deputy chief until winning the job of Clinton County sheriff in November’s general election.
Office in transition
Greenwalt takes over for longtime sheriff Rick Lincoln, who retired after 20 years at the helm.
His term is only a couple months old, and Greenwalt says he has some learning to do.
“I did not come in to upset the organization,” he said. There are important decisions ahead, he said, but they aren’t ones that can be made overnight.
Greenwalt said he is considering restructuring the office’s hierarchy to include additional supervisory positions that could provide senior leadership during all shifts.
“Some of the most inopportune things happen at the worst times, and you have to make sure you have staff in place to manage those,” he said.
Because of his past experience, Greenwalt said he believes it’s important to put an emphasis on fighting the flow of illegal drugs.
“So many crimes are attributed to the illegal use and sale of narcotics,” he said. “The drug trade has such a negative impact. It leads to all types of (other) crimes — burglary, assault, robbery. When someone decides they are getting into the game of drugs, it’s for finances. They don’t really have sympathy for whose life is lost. It’s the lure of easy money.”
Because of the development of a narcotics task force in the city of Clinton, Greenwalt said some of the “drug dealers and criminals” are moving out of Clinton. He wants to ensure they leave the area entirely instead of spreading into more rural areas of the county.
Narcotics policing, he said, is an ever-changing endeavor.
“I would say I am hard pressed to believe we can win the war on drugs, but I don’t think we can ever let up on it,” he said. “The day we let up on it is the day we’ve lost. We haven’t lost, but I wouldn’t say we’ve won, either.
Greenwalt said public trust in law enforcement is built on transparency.
“We have to communicate. We have to be transparent and let (citizens) know what we’re doing,” he said. “Our biggest advocates are our citizens. The worst thing we can do is not be open and transparent. I think you ask for more headaches by trying to hide something. Someone told me years ago ‘if you mess up, fess up.’”
He also acknowledged that national events have led to more public scrutiny of police.
“Society has spoken,” he said. “I believe the vast majority of people in this country want law enforcement and they know we need it,” he said. “But they also want to be informed.”
Greenwalt said he hopes to attend community events and talk with residents to gather feedback.
“I think communication and dialogue are vital, and I vow to make sure that happens.”
Fairness for all
Greenwalt says he is a firm believer that “everyone gets treated equally. I don’t believe anyone is above the law.”
He said he would “not condone” any officer favoritism within the department.
Training and leadership are key to the department’s integrity, he said.
“When you’re a young law enforcement officer, you’re bound to face an instance you’ve never been exposed to before,” he said. “That’s why it’s imperative … you have to have that supervisor out there who can say ‘do not succumb to that.’”
He referenced a call from April 2019 in which a Jackson County prosecutor, Amanda Lassance, and a companion were parked along Highway 61 near Welton. Police documents said there were beer cans scattered around, and that Lassance showed signs of intoxication. Deputies from both Clinton and Jackson counties responded.
Lassance was not given a field sobriety test, documents said, and police provided Lassance with a ride away from the scene to the Jackson County Courthouse, and then back to her vehicle the next morning.
Judge John Telleen of the Seventh Judicial District called the incident “favorable treatment by one law enforcement officer to another.”
“As a city cop (at the time of the incident), I don’t want to armchair quarterback what they did, but now, it’s my responsibility to make sure those things aren’t happening,” Greenwalt said. “We should have had a supervisor or manager there when you have high-profile stops.”
It’s been less than a year since the Clinton County Sheriff’s Office installed a department-wide body camera system.
Body cameras, Greenwalt said, are a “great tool. It’s great for evidence for the prosecutor, and it’s good at protection from civil liability, but it’s an unbelievable tool to make sure your people are doing a good thing when you aren’t there watching. It’s accountability.”
He said he hasn’t had a chance to familiarize himself with the office’s body camera policy yet, but said it’s an area he will analyze closely.
Greenwalt said deputies have discretion to turn the cameras off when a situation necessitates it, such as when someone is not fully clothed within in their own home, for example.
“But, that discretion is limited,” Greenwalt said. “If it’s not limited now, it will be limited under my leadership.”