Noah Weinke of Rib Lake, left, on Wednesday became the newest officer in the Chippewa Falls Police Department. He is shown here with Chippewa Falls police Chief Matt Kelm.

CHIPPEWA FALLS — All the on-duty Chippewa Falls police officers and a few retired ones gathered Wednesday at the Chippewa County Courthouse for a celebration as the newest officer was sworn in to his job.

Noah Weinke, 21, of Rib Lake became the newest officer in the department after Judge Steve Gibbs completed the ceremony.

Weinke, who is fresh-faced and looking like he could enroll in a “21 Jump Street” program as an undercover officer at a high school, was beaming as he posed for pictures with his family before the ceremony.

“It’s like a dream come true,” Weinke said. “I really like the area over here. My goal was to start my career here and stay here.”

Chief Matt Kelm praised Weinke as a standout of the 26 applications his department received.

“He’s very excited to start,” Kelm said. “He’s going to be a great addition to our team.”

With Weinke on board, the Chippewa Falls Police Department is temporarily at full staffing with 24 sworn officers. The City Council approved funding in the 2019 budget to add a position after the department had been at 23 officers for several years. However, when I started with the Leader-Telegram in 2001, the Police Department had 27 officers; positions were eliminated through attrition during tight budget years, not through layoffs.

But as I just noted, being fully staffed is unfortunately a temporary situation, as school resource Officer Joe Nelson is going to go to work for the district full time at the end of the summer. He will now be a full-time school district employee and no longer a member of the Police Department.

Nelson will be replaced with a new school resource officer. The city and the school district equally share the cost of the position, with that officer spending most of the day at the high school but also heading to the nearby middle school.

It is a lengthy process to become a Chippewa Falls police officer.

Weinke completed a police program at Chippewa Valley Technical College. Before being hired, Weinke went through psychological testing, and staff did a full background check.

Wednesday was Weinke’s first day on the job. He’ll spend the next 14 weeks in a field training program, learning each of the skills of an officer. By the third week, he’ll be driving a squad car with a field training officer.

Even after the 14-week training period, Weinke will remain on probation for 18 months.

“We want to make sure the person is a good fit for the department, and a good fit for the community,” Kelm explained. “It’s very important we get the right person selected because that person has a lot of power and authority behind it.”

I noted there were 26 applications for this position. Years ago, it wasn’t uncommon for the department to receive 80 to 100 applications.

“The trend has been lower and lower,” Kelm said. “I’ve called a lot of other chiefs, and I’m hearing our numbers are actually really good. The good news is they are of high quality, the ones coming out of CVTC.”

The Chippewa Falls Police Department has made some changes to improve its retention rates. For one, they switched from eight-hour shifts to 12-hour shifts for all patrol positions in July 2013.

While that makes for long days (or nights!), it also means that the schedule works where they get every other weekend off. Kelm also believes that once they have that 24th officer back on duty full time, it will reduce overtime, which of course means more time off work.

“I think it’s a step in the right direction,” Kelm said of department obtaining the additional position. “It will help in the long run. It’s not like (the council) can add an officer and they magically appear.”

In Mayor Greg Hoffman’s 18 years between serving on the council or as mayor, he couldn’t recall a single incident where the city has had to make a payout to a private citizen because of an encounter with a police officer. It is seemingly routine these days to read about other, larger police departments, paying millions to settle lawsuits against their police departments.

“The car cams and body cams have been lifesavers,” Hoffman said, telling a story about someone who tried to claim a police dispute but stopped the claim once they learned the incident was on tape.

“When you get by without lawsuits, that means you are doing your job right,” Hoffman said. “Our officers are well trained; we do our job the way it’s supposed to be.”

Kelm is upbeat about the quality of his staff.

“Chippewa Falls is certainly not alone in these (staffing) struggles,” Kelm said. “And retention is a challenge for everyone.”