Winona welcomes city’s first community outreach officers

The Winona Police Department hopes the community will see it in a different light with a new pair of officers. The two community outreach officers will stop at schools attend events and other activities around the city.

The department wanted to apply for a grant to fund the program in 2017 and received good feedback from city leaders. While that didn’t work out, this year the city was able to free up funding in its budget for about a $100,000 investment in personnel and equipment.

Winona Police Department Officers Anita Sobotta and Brad Barrientos made their way to Jefferson Elementary School for the second time alone Friday.

“They’re kind of getting used to seeing us already,” said Sobotta.

Sobotta is from Arcadia, Wisconsin, but went to Winona State before working at the department. Barrientos has served as a police officer in Rushford but is from the area.

“I grew up in Winona and kind of came back to this area when I was done with school,” said Barrientos.

While he has worked for the department for 14 years and Sobotta for 18, they’re doing police work they haven’t really done before.

“I was responding to a lot of calls and the crimes had already been committed, and we’re kind of there to somewhat pick up the pieces,” Barrientos said.

This is more of a proactive role — visiting businesses and schools and meeting with community members ahead of time. The two stop in the office to help a staff member organize bagged weekend snacks for the kids before heading on their way.

“We promised to make an appearance at phys ed,” Sobotta tells the staff member.

It’s small things like this that they wouldn’t get to if they were going call to call.

“You don’t have that time to visit with a child in the home or to visit with someone who wants more of your time,” Sobotta said.

Jefferson doesn’t have an officer at the school. That primarily is reserved for the high school.

“We don’t see a lot of presence in our elementary school building, so this is another really great opportunity for students to interact with law enforcement,” said Maggie Main, principal at Jefferson Elementary School.

So far, the school’s principal has seen the officers be a positive presence, especially with such young students. The officers give out high fives in the hallways, read to kindergarten classes and have been attending the school assembly on Mondays.

“They get very excited for the interactions,” Maine said.

Over time, they hope to build a positive connection with even the youngest of residents.

“Bridge that gap between the community and the Police Department and create better relationships. Show the community that we are people, and we can be trusted,” Barrientos said.

The Winona Police Department looked across state lines to the La Crosse Police Department for some guidance. In La Crosse, there are neighborhood resource officers who focus on community concerns in their assigned neighborhoods. Since there are only two officers for this team in Winona, they will spend their time around the entire community.

This is their third week in this role, so the officers are still working out their schedule, where they want to get to and when. The department said they’ll likely be working around the community during the weekdays.

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