La Crosse Co. Sheriff: deputy violated standards of conduct, but had no racist intent with hand sign

LA CROSSE, Wis. (WKBT) – La Crosse County Sheriff Jeff Wolf says the deputy accused of flashing an inappropriate gesture violated department policy.

At a Judiciary and Law Committee meeting on Tuesday, Sheriff Wolf released the results of an outside investigation that found no information to suggest that Deputy Brandon Penzkover made the gesture with racist intentions.

However, the sheriff says Penzkover violated policies related to the department’s code of ethics and standards of conduct.

As News 8 Now first reported in July, the sheriff’s department posted a photo of his staff at Country Boom, a music festival.

In the photo, Deputy Penzkover is making the “okay” hand gesture. The Southern Poverty Law Center says the hand sign has been used by and associated with white supremacists.

After public criticism, the sheriff took the photo down and asked the Dane County Sheriff’s Office to investigate.

Sheriff Wolf says Dane County did not discover any racist intent.

Penzkover says he was playing a game he learned from his sons. It’s known as the “circle game.” According to social media, if someone sees you making a circle with your thumb and finger, you can punch them in the shoulder.

County board supervisors who attended Tuesday’s meeting say they’re disappointed in Sheriff Wolf’s response. They also say officers should have enough race and bias training to know about possibly racist hand gestures.

“I was disappointed to hear that the sheriff doesn’t think that there was community outrage over this. There was,” said the Board Supervisor of District 3 David Pierce. “There was plenty of community outrage and the fact that he has not reached out to those groups is disappointing.”

Sheriff Wolf declined an on-camera interview, but during the meeting, he said he did not have any people of color come forward to him to say they felt hurt by the image.

“It’s our responsibility to be educated on how our symbols will be construed by other people,” said the Board Supervisor of District 30 Dillon Mader. “We don’t make the meaning of messages by ourselves. The meaning is made in the communication and so it’s important to understand how different communities will respond to what we do and what we say.”

Sheriff Wolf did not release any details but says he disciplined Penzkover and took corrective action to prevent this kind of incident from happening again.

You can read the sheriff’s full release here.