By UW-Stout Office of University Communications
Lisa Walter had never been to Menomonie when she drove north on Interstate 94 in 1993 to interview for a sergeant’s position at University of Wisconsin-Stout. If she got the job she certainly didn’t intend for it to be the last stop in her law enforcement career.
Walter, a native of Hartford in southeastern Wisconsin, had grown attached to Milwaukee while working in the city for the state Department of Transportation Division of Motor Vehicles. She had worked for the State Capitol Police Department as well, in Madison and Milwaukee, but wanted to bolster her resume with police supervisory experience. The sergeant’s position at UW-Stout seemed to fit the bill.
“My full intention was to get supervisory experience somewhere in the state and go back to Milwaukee,” Walter said recently in her corner office at the UW-Stout Police Department. “I absolutely love Milwaukee. I still do.”
Walter landed the sergeant’s position, but life doesn’t always work out as planned. She never did return to Milwaukee to work. Last Friday (Jan. 6), Walter retired from the campus police department. She served as police chief since 1999, first in an interim position and permanently since 2002.
A search is underway to fill the position. Department veteran Jason Spetz will serve as interim chief.
“Chief Walter brought an enormous amount of professionalism, good humor and common sense to the department,” UW-Stout Chancellor Bob Meyer said. “While she will be incredibly hard to replace, Lisa is leaving the department in very good shape and her legacy will continue for a very long time.”
Meyer said Walter worked hard to connect the community with the department and UW-Stout, noting the Run with the Cops event she started to benefit Special Olympics and other volunteering she has done for Special Olympics and other organizations. Meyer also said Walter has been omnipresent at all major events at UW-Stout throughout her career, including homecoming, residence hall Move-in Day and visits by dignitaries.
“Lisa certainly has been visible, not only on campus but in the community and the region,” Meyer said. “She is the epitome of what community policing is all about.”
Eric Atkinson, chief of the Menomonie Police Department, said that “Chief Walter was instrumental in building an effective working relationship between our departments. She was transparent in her objectives and was always willing to collaborate on projects aimed at enhancing public safety.
“We will miss her enthusiasm and her ability to collaborate with various community shareholders,” Atkinson added. “Her ability to connect with students, staff, faculty and the community was nothing short of exceptional. She is a role model for not only law enforcement but the community as a whole.”
An eye-opening trip ‘up north’
Walter said that while she did some research about UW-Stout and the area before interviewing, the trip to Menomonie was an eye-opener.
“When I drove northbound on I-94 to come up for interview day, I was like, man, this is gorgeous up here,” Walter said. “This is ‘up north.’ This is where everybody goes for vacations, for goodness sakes.”
When Walter began at UW-Stout, patrol officers there and at most campuses around the U.S. “walked around during the day with empty (gun) holsters. They weren’t able to take guns on patrol with them until midnight,” she said.
That eventually changed, however, as did many other things for the department once Walter became established. For the most part, she said, the capabilities of the campus police and the Menomonie Police Department now are the same.
Expectations differ for campus police departments
The capabilities might be the same, but the demands and expectations certainly are different for a campus police department.
“I’ve told families at freshman orientation that we are the most diverse and unique community of 10,000 people in northwestern Wisconsin, other than other campus communities,” Walter said. “You can’t go to any other community of 10,000 and have the diversity that we have. That requires a certain kind of officer.”
For example, she said, her officers have “to know students and members of our community,” and she places a premium on “continually learning as a staff person.”
That includes diversity training, she said.
It takes good judgment and sometimes a gentle touch when dealing with students, Walter said. “I tell parents, ‘We will not become mom and dad, but we will become the cool aunt or uncle who is willing to flick your student on the forehead when they do stupid stuff,’ ” she said, adding, “and then there are other people that you’ve got to put the hammer down.”
Reasons to stay
Walter said it was the ability to get to know the students, faculty, staff and the public that kept her at UW-Stout.
“I’m not good just in a squad car doing traffic,” she said. “I’m not good just behind the uniform. I am much better when I have that ability to know people longer term. This was a good connection for me.”
However, any police career that lasts 23 years is bound to include some tragic events, and Walter’s time on campus certainly had its share: three students killed in a house fire, a suicide in a residence hall, a student who died after an altercation near the Log Jam and, most recently, the death of student Hussain Saeed Alnahdi in downtown Menomonie.
While many of the deaths occurred off campus, university police always are involved in investigations involving students and any aftermath.
“Part of it is you need a thick skin,” she said, “but part of it is you tend to get killed with a thousand cuts on this job. Student deaths are the worst, the absolute worst.”
She added: “You just can’t ever prepare for a face-to-face with a parent who is never going to see their kid again. You just can’t.”
Setting an example
Walter doesn’t make a big deal of it, but she acknowledges the fact she has been something of a trail blazer in her profession, where women make up just 15 percent of all law enforcement officers.
“I started my career with a sheriff who told me right to my face that women don’t belong in law enforcement,” Walter said. “That was 32 years ago. I still think women have a ways to go in this profession. When I go to chiefs’ conferences, I’m one of the very few women and there are very few minorities.
“So, we’ve got a long way to go, but it’s been a heck of a trail to blaze.”
What’s next for Walter? She will continue her volunteer work for organizations like Special Olympics, but there are no professional plans at present.
“I’m going to take a deep breath,” she said. “I may even turn my phone off at night.”
Note: the home page photo shows retired UW-Stout Police Chief Lisa Walters during the school’s 2016 homecoming parade in downtown Menomonie, sharing a fun moment with a parade spectator and Blaze, the university mascot. Photos accompanying this article were provided by the UW-Stout Office of University Communications.