SFPD takes on heroin epidemic

Community Safety Outreach Initiative examines drug use
by Jeff Pederson
Sheboygan Falls News Editor


INVESTIGATOR ERIC CRUZ of the Sheboygan Falls Police Department spoke about the impact heroin use, during a Sheboygan Falls Chamber- Main Street Community Safety Outreach Initiative program Tuesday, May 16, at the Sheboygan Falls Municipal Building. 
Falls NewsphotobySteve Ottman INVESTIGATOR ERIC CRUZ of the Sheboygan Falls Police Department spoke about the impact heroin use, during a Sheboygan Falls Chamber- Main Street Community Safety Outreach Initiative program Tuesday, May 16, at the Sheboygan Falls Municipal Building. Falls NewsphotobySteve Ottman Widely acknowledged as one of the most challenging problems presently facing law enforcement agencies throughout the country, heroin use served as the topic of the second Sheboygan Falls Chamber-Main Street Community Safety Outreach Initiative program held Tuesday, May 16, in at the Sheboygan Falls Municipal Building.

The program drew 25 interested business owners, community leaders and community members for a discussion of the presence of heroin in the city of Sheboygan Falls.

Sheboygan Falls Police Chief and Director of Public Safety Steve Riffel opened the program by offering an overview of how the often devastating impact of heroin use has grown to epidemic proportions.

SHIRL BREUNG, Sheboygan Falls Chamber-Main Street executive director, shows off Special Enforcement Tactics (SET) team gear while Sheboygan Falls Police Department Captain Aaron Wigen discusses the SET team, during a Sheboygan Falls Chamber-Main Street Community Safety Outreach Initiative program Tuesday, May 16, at the Sheboygan Falls Municipal Building. - Falls News photo by Steve OttmanSHIRL BREUNG, Sheboygan Falls Chamber-Main Street executive director, shows off Special Enforcement Tactics (SET) team gear while Sheboygan Falls Police Department Captain Aaron Wigen discusses the SET team, during a Sheboygan Falls Chamber-Main Street Community Safety Outreach Initiative program Tuesday, May 16, at the Sheboygan Falls Municipal Building. - Falls News photo by Steve Ottman
“I am here today to tell you that Sheboygan Falls has a heroin issue,” Riffel said. “We are a little better off than some the surrounding communities, but it is still a pretty significant problem.

“Back in 2007 we started to see a lot more meth and cocaine coming into the city,” he said. “Once it gets here, it is hard to get out. In order to address the presence of these drugs in our community, we started our own Special Enforcement Tactics (SET) team, which has made a big difference. Our SET team handled 38 cases in its first year of existence, which really illustrated how much of a need there was for sure a unit.”


OFFICER ERIC WISCHKI and K9 Bo of the Sheboygan Falls Police Department carried out a K9 unit demonstration, during a Sheboygan Falls Chamber-Main Street Community Safety Outreach Initiative program Tuesday, May 16, at the Sheboygan Falls Municipal Building. - Falls 
News photo by Steve Ottman OFFICER ERIC WISCHKI and K9 Bo of the Sheboygan Falls Police Department carried out a K9 unit demonstration, during a Sheboygan Falls Chamber-Main Street Community Safety Outreach Initiative program Tuesday, May 16, at the Sheboygan Falls Municipal Building. - Falls News photo by Steve Ottman Riffel described heroin addiction as a progressive disease that leads to many other problems on an individual and community wide level.

“Heroin addiction is a disease that typically starts on a small scale and then can get out of control quite quickly,” Riffel said. “The problem is that when a person goes down this path of addiction, they get hooked. Once they get hooked, they can’t get off of it and that is when the problems really escalate.

“In order to properly address this issue, we’ve realized that we need a multi-level approach that involves schools, mental health institutions and health care facilities, as well as law enforcement agencies,” he said. “On a law enforcement level in Sheboygan Falls, we have formed a multi-jurisdictional drug unit led by Investigator Eric Cruz. Drug dealers are very mobile and our goal for the department is to have Officer Cruz become a fulltime drug investigator. That could happen after a new officer is hired in July.”

Cruz, who has been with the SFPD for 12½ years, has spent the last year as a member of the Sheboygan County MEG Unit as a drug investigator.

Cruz said the Sheboygan MEG Unit, which includes members of the Sheboygan Police Department, Plymouth Police Department and Sheboygan County Sheriff’s Office, is focused on investigating narcotics trafficking within the county through a multi- jurisdicitonal approach, including occasional assistance from state and federal agencies.

“Heroin use does not discriminate,” Cruz said. “Heroin addicts usually begin taking some type of opiate for chronic pain relief. They then progress to marijuana and other gateway drugs and soon they are headed down the path to addiction. They are searching for the next great high. That becomes all that matters to them. Heroin is a sedative, which provides an intense, euphoric high. According to the statistics, 75 percent of people that try heroin, get addicted to it.

“It can be smoked, inhaled or injected,” he said. “Someone that has been using heroin gets flushed skin and often moves in and out of consciousness or ‘on the nod’ as it is known. Users also have slowed breathing and clouded thinking. We are able to use a drug called Narcan to block the effects of opiods, especially in the case of a possible overdose. Just last week, I used Narcan on an individual in Sheboygan Falls. We’ve used Narcan on one person I recall on seven different occasions.”

Cruz noted that heroin users can be hard to distinguish and may not always fit a certain description.

“I’ve come across heroin users that are functioning addicts,” Cruz said. “They are able to work and go about their lives, but still much of their time is spent obtaining and taking heroin.

“In nearly all cases, heroin addiction eventually tears families apart,” he said. “People start stealing money to pay for drugs and crime goes up. The amount of crime fueled by heroin addiction has skyrocketed over the past several years. The Sheboygan area has become a hotbed for drug dealers who buy it cheaper in Milwaukee and then sell it for a higher price in Sheboygan. When they don’t have money, people trade property of value for the drugs, which can cause other significant problems .”

Cruz urged early intervention as the best way to head off the destructive behavior of a heroin addict.

“Since heroin is a progressive condition, being proactive and involved early in someone’s life early is a big key,” Cruz said. “Store all of your medications in a safe place and if you aren’t using a particular medication, bring them in to be disposed at the police department. We have a disposal box where you can drop off any unused prescription drugs. This is vital to stop the spread of heroin addiction before it starts.”

The SFPD K9 team of Officer Eric Wischki and drug search dog Bo gave a demonstration.

“I have been on the K9 team with Bo for a little over a year now,” Wischki said. “Bo has been trained to track the smell of marijuana, cocaine and heroin, as well as meth and ecstasy.

“We’ve gone through 340 hours of training together so far, including a minimum of 16 hours of training a month,” he said. “We’ve had a total of 85 K9 deployments, most of which were to search for narcotics and a few were for tracking. Our K9 unit assists the Sheboygan County Sheriff’s Office, Kohler, Sheboygan and Elkhart Lake police departments. We are also one of five K9 units in the county, which train together on a regular basis.”

SFPD Captain Aaron Wigen spoke about the formation of the SET team.

“Going back to 2006, we started to experience an increase in the number of search warrants in our area,” Wigen said. “However, there were always different people involved in carrying out these searches.

“We realized then that we needed to be able to get together as a team or we would have an elevated risk to officer safety,” he said. “We set out to put together a cohesive group of officers that train together and know each other well. That cohesion is vital when carrying out the kind of search warrants and raids that we do on a regular basis.”

Wigen noted that each of the five members of the SFPD SET team must pass a rigorous selection process that involves a written exam, supervisor recommendation and agility test.

“We only pick the best and most brilliant for our SET team and each team member must pass an annual test in order to stay on the team,” Wigen said. “This has been a great thing for our department and has led to a lot of successfully executed search warrants, including felony and misdemeanor drug arrests over the years.”

In addition to search warrants, the SET team is also equipped to carry out perimeter security, vehicle assault and officer rescue missions, as well as other tasks as assigned by the police chief.

Wigen spoke about a few specific drug search cases in Sheboygan Falls, including one involving a huge marijuana growing operation.

“We deal with a lot of serious cases involving drugs, firearms, currency, you name it,” Wigen said. “I recall one very elaborate marijuana plant growing facility that we had in a home in Sheboygan Falls.

“The attention to detail and the overall scope of the operation was very, very large scale for our area,” he said.

Wigen urged audience members to report any suspicious activity they come across involving possible drug use or distribution, or any other illegal behavior.

“Don’t be afraid to call the police department if you see any unusual activity,” Wigen said. “I can’t stress that enough. Many of the biggest arrests we’ve made have been based off of tips we’ve received from the public. We are very fortunate to receive a lot of assistance from the community, which has led to arrests and as a result made our city a safer place to live.”

Sheboygan Falls Mayor Randy Meyer commended the SFPD SET team for their service to the community.

“I am very proud of our SET team,” Meyer said. “I’ve had the opportunity to go out and see them in action and it is amazing what they do. The physical testing part of it is very important. The extensive training is also a big deal too and it shows in how they stick together out in the field.

“The SET team has become our No. 1 tool in combating the presence of drugs in our community,” he said. “By having this team in place, we are sending a message that we are not going to tolerate this in Falls.”

Deputy Chief Steve Ross, who will replace the retiring Riffel SFPD chief on June 3, indicated that more Community Safety Initiative programs are in the works.

“With the chief retiring, we will be taking some time to transition everything this summer,” Ross said. “We do plan to do more of these programs starting in September. The next one will most likely cover the topic of an active shooter in the workplace and robbery prevention.”


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