Richards steps down after 12 years as Columbia County sheriff
Dennis Richards is contemplating how he’ll sign off on the dispatch radio for the last time without letting his voice break.
It will happen in a matter of days, on Jan. 4.
That’s the last working day for Richards, 59, a Columbia County Sheriff’s Office patrol sergeant who, in 2006, was elected to the first of his three terms as sheriff.
“It’s been a busy 12 years,” he mused, about a week before Christmas, as he packed up the few items — mostly trophies and plaques — that remained in his office at the Law Enforcement Center in Portage.
“I think a person would be foolish to say we never have regrets,” Richards said. “But I’ve been blessed with the people I have. They are hard, hard workers and dedicated people.”
Richards’ departure ends a 28½-year career with the Columbia County Sheriff’s Office. Sheriff Jim Smith hired Richards in July 1990, when he was 30 years old.
He learned how to be a law enforcement officer, he said, mainly by riding along with experienced deputies like Mark Hahn and Robert Lane. Hahn, retired from the Portage Police Department, is now a part-time court services officer with the sheriff’s office. And Lane, who died in December 2017, became a Columbia County supervisor and chairman of the County Board’s judiciary committee, which then oversaw the operations of the sheriff’s office.
“I rode with Bob Lane overnight,” Richards recalled, “and started work in the morning, three hours later.”
Mike Babcock, who was Richards’ chief deputy until his retirement in mid-2016, said Richards’ most outstanding characteristic was his hands-on style.
It is highly unusual, Babcock said, for a county’s highest-ranking law enforcement officer to be present at most scenes. But Richards made a point of it, he said.
“Dennis brought a very special personal connection as the sheriff,” Babcock said. “He met personally with victims of crimes and tragedies, and spent a lot of time comforting people.”
It’s more typical for the sheriff to delegate such tasks to people under his supervision, such as patrol deputies and the medical examiner, Babcock said.
When Richards took office in 2006, he brought with him his background as an officer on patrol.
“If people need help, they don’t care if it says ‘sheriff’ on the collar,” he said. “They don’t care if it’s the chief deputy or a detective or a patrol sergeant. I’m here for the people, and I was out there for the people, regardless of what the conditions or the call times were.”
The connection with people — and not the budgetary and administrative chores more common for county sheriffs — was his strong suit, Richards agreed.
“Until I became sheriff, I had no idea about all the things that the command staff did,” he said.
Had it not been for the experience of people who, until his election, had outranked him — people like Babcock and Capt. Darrel Kuhl, who is now the chief deputy — Richards said he would have struggled much more with the grind of paperwork, especially in his first few years.
Babcock and Kuhl were “godsends,” he said.
When Richards names the command staff for whom he is grateful, he includes Detective Lt. Roger Brandner, who will be sworn in Jan. 7 as his successor.
When Sheriff Steve Rowe retired in 2006, he endorsed Brandner, although Richards, a patrol sergeant, also sought the Republican nomination.
“That was a crappy election,” Richards said.
The race was characterized by anonymous fliers questioning Richards’ ability to lead, and a controversy at the Columbia County Fair, when Richards’ supporters objected to Brandner positioning his campaign booth near the booth of the sheriff’s office, saying it was tantamount to an endorsement.
Richards defeated Brandner for the Republican nomination in September 2006 by about 400 votes, and went on to defeat the Democratic nominee, Dave Knapp, in the November general election.
“I was not the most educated person in the sheriff’s office then, absolutely not,” Richards said. “You’re coming in with a mindset of what people do all day long.”
Both Richards and Brandner said the transition into Richards’ first term was handled collegially, with Brandner — who outranked Richards — offering vital insight on things like equipment, budgeting and management.
The same is true now, according to Brandner, who was unopposed in the November election and ran with Richards’ endorsement.
In the last few months, Brandner said, Richards has delegated leadership of the department to Brandner, including meeting with the County Board and its public safety committee, which oversees the department.
At the December meeting of the public safety committee, Brandner was effusive in his praise for how Richards has handled the transition.
“The sheriff has been so gracious in letting me get involved during the transition,” Brandner said.
All three of Richards’ elections included opposition.
When he sought a second term in 2010, he faced off against Dan Garrigan, then a detective sergeant in the Columbia County Sheriff’s Office (he’s now a lieutenant in the Portage Police Department), and Brian Landers, a police lieutenant in the Wisconsin Dells Police Department, who stepped down as a Columbia County supervisor to run for sheriff. Richards easily won the primary, and because there was no Democratic opponent, he was unopposed on the November ballot.
Four years later, Richards not only defeated a Democratic challenger, Wisconsin Dells police officer Jesse Weaver, but also a Republican write-in, Portage businessman Tommy Nakielski.
Richard said every time he has run for sheriff, he did so with the commitment to serve the full four-year term.
A number of things happened in his final term, however, to tell him it was time to turn the reins over to Brandner.
One of them was the death of his wife, Janet Pulver Richards, who died of cancer at 57 in September 2016.
“The loss of my wife put things in perspective, and showed me how short life is, or can be,” he said.
And, after being with the sheriff’s office since 1990, he said, he’d like to take some time to sort out his options, then find a vocation that involves working with people, but not law enforcement.
“I’ve had enough carrying a gun,” he said. “But I will be doing something. I have to. Sitting around the house, the honey-do list is only so long.”