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Friday, 12 August 2016 12:42

Law enforcement takes to the waters of Geneva Lake

Written by  Dennis Hines
Officer Dale Vavra gets ready to board a Geneva Lake Law Enforcement Agency patrol boat along the shores of Geneva Lake in Williams Bay. A contingent of 14 officers patrols the lake from Memorial Day to Labor Day each year. Officer Dale Vavra gets ready to board a Geneva Lake Law Enforcement Agency patrol boat along the shores of Geneva Lake in Williams Bay. A contingent of 14 officers patrols the lake from Memorial Day to Labor Day each year. Terry Mayer

WALWORTH COUNTY SUNDAY -- About 20,000 boats travel on Geneva Lake throughout the summer. Besides the boaters, the lake also is busy with swimmers, sail boaters, wakeboarders and water skiers.

With all that activity, someone has to make sure the lake remains safe for users. That’s where the Geneva Lake Law Enforcement Agency comes in.

The 14-officer agency is responsible for patrolling the lake, which includes 27 miles of shoreline and nine miles of the lake. Commander Tom Hausner said the agency’s main function is to make sure that people are obeying safety laws and boaters are driving at the proper speed limit.

“The majority of what we stop are people who don’t know the law. They’ll tell you, ‘I didn’t know that.’ We’re out here for education and safety,” Hausner said. “Just because someone doesn’t know the law or understand the law, it doesn’t give them a break.

“If someone is riding on a deck on the side of a boat and the boat turns, there’s a high probability that they’re going to be under the boat, and they could hit the motor and it could be catastrophic and that’s what we’re trying to avoid.”

Officers also are on watch for drunken boat drivers, which can be difficult to detect on the water, Hausner said.

“A high priority for any law enforcement agency is stopping drunk driving,” Hausner said. “It’s a little different on a lake because it’s harder to detect and observe, because it’s not like you’re on a road and you’re watching them cross the center line or go on the gravel or on the shoulder because there’s no lane of travel here.

“The other disadvantage we have from the street cops is when you stop a car for a traffic stop, you can smell the odor (of alcohol) coming from their breath because you’re close. We may be 10 feet away from these people and not able to smell (the alcohol).

“We average anywhere from three to six drunk drivers during the summer. It might not seem like a lot, but with what we deal with, it’s hard to detect them.”

Officers issue between 240 and 300 citations a summer, Hausner estimated. He said fines could range from $86 to $400, depending on the seriousness of the violation. The agency’s busiest time is usually between mid-June and late July.

“We normally don’t get busy until the third week in June because that’s usually when Chicago schools are out for the summer,” Hausner said. “From the end of June through the end of July is our busy time of the season.”

Besides enforcing laws, the agency also helps boaters who are stranded or lost on the lake.

“People will not know where they’re at,” Officer Nicole Heckel said. “It’s hard because they’re not familiar with the lake, so they can’t really give you a landmark because they don’t know the lake.”

Geneva Lake officers work with other agencies such as the Water Safety Patrol. The law enforcement agency and Water Safety Patrol both respond to boat accidents and other emergencies that may occur on the lake.

“They’re kind of the firefighter, rescue squad and lifeguard aspect of it,” Hausner said. “They have no law enforcement authority or power, but they certainly help with the disabled boats, the towing, putting lifeguards on the beach and they respond with us to any boat accidents.”

The agency is funded by four municipalities: the city of Lake Geneva, village of Fontana, village of Williams Bay and town of Linn. Hausner said the agency assists officers in those municipalities when needed.

“Our primary job is on the lake, but if they call us, we’ll respond,” he said.

Hausner said one of the more difficult aspects of the job is responding to an emergency when there’s heavy boat traffic on the lake.

“The Sunday before the Fourth of July, there were three or four pockets on the lake where there were no boats, and the rest of the lake was just bumper-to-bumper boats. We were responding to a report of a boat that sunk with people in the water, and we were driving 20 mph with sirens trying to work our way through,” Hausner said. “We got them all out of the water, but that’s what you deal with when you have that large mass of boats.”

Although most people comply with the officers, sometimes a violator will try to flee.

“We call ahead to the jurisdiction where we see them go, then (the police) will be sitting on the pier waiting for them,” Heckel said.

The agency patrols the lake roughly from  Memorial Day weekend to Labor Day weekend. Most of the officers work full time for other departments, Hausner said.

“You can’t make a career out of three months out of the year, so there’s a lot of officers who begin their careers with us. There’s a lot of officers who end their careers with us,” Hausner said. “Half to two-thirds of the officers are working for other departments. My sergeant is the chief of Bloomfield.”

Dale Vavra, who is set to retire from the Williams Bay Police Department in the near future, has worked on and off for the lake agency since 1978. He said he may spend more summers working with Geneva Lake Law Enforcement once he retires.

“I really haven’t worked that many shifts this year because I’m still working full time on the (Williams Bay) police department,” Vavra said. “Between that and my four active grandkids, I don’t even get out on my own boat very often. But the times I’ve been out here, it’s been on the weekdays and it’s been relatively quiet boat trips.”

Heckel has worked in law enforcement for about six years and is studying to be a nurse at Gateway Technical College. Heckel said she has enjoyed being a part of the agency.

“It’s a great department to work for,” Heckel said. “I enjoy the people I interact with on a daily basis. I enjoy being here.”

Geneva Lake officers must complete the same amount of training as other officers, but they also have to learn how to operate the boat, Hausner said.

“We put a majority of the time simply on operating the boat, because most of the officers have had minimal experience,” he said. “It’s not like a squad car. We teach to assure the training of our officers as well.”

Hausner has worked for the agency for about 12 years. He retired from the Walworth County Sheriff’s Office in December 2012, after working in law enforcement for about 30 years.

Despite some of the difficulties of the job, it has its perks, he said.

“Look at the view,” Hausner said, pointing at the lake from his office in Williams Bay. “We don’t see the trees from the forest sometimes, but where we work is absolutely stunning.

“I get an opportunity to hire young officers to see their careers begin. I take a lot of pride in that.”

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