National Police Week: Seitz follows ‘community first’ approach

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Elkader Police Chief Mitch Seitz, who joined the department in 2017, is fostering a community first approach. He helped build that trust at Halloween, handing out candy to local kids. (Submitted photo)

By Willis Patenaude, Times-Register

As National Police Week descends across the nation, Elkader Police Chief, the affable Mitch Seitz, sat down for an interview to discuss his journey, the state of policing and what this week means to him. 

The problem solving, community driven Seitz started his career in 2004 in New Albin, before heading off to Postville as a part of the tactical unit and a K9 handler. In 2017, he made his way to Elkader after accepting the position of police chief, a move he described as being “the best decision I ever made.” 

It was also a decision that was driven by a desire to implement his policing philosophy, which is a community first approach that emphasizes the “peace officer” portion of the job rather than the “law enforcement” aspect. It’s an approach that favors assisting the public rather than punishing them, because, as Seitz put it, “the public doesn’t want just blind enforcement of the law.” They want a less aggressive form of policing that is more geared to problem solving, because “no one benefits from over-enforcement of the law,” and sometimes, there are alternative ways to accomplish the same goal. 

However, change never comes easy, and in taking the police chief position, Seitz knew it required a top down approach. Having years of lessons learned, quality training and working in diverse places, he was prepared to implement his vision and “influence how officers operate.” 

But, what did he want to change? First, Seitz wanted to change the overall public perception of the police, which has taken a negative turn in the last few years with increased scrutiny and a saturation of media criticism. 

Second, he wanted to see a general change in police tradition—away from one that arrests firsts and asks questions after and toward one that will attempt to help citizens out and avoid conflict. 

Lastly, he wanted to give administration officials a better understanding of what police work entails, what their needs are and what public concerns exist, so they can better coexist in a collective problem solving fashion. 

Addressing how this philosophy is being put in place and the obstacles it has faced in Elkader, a “community that is very supportive,” Seitz said there is still, in some places, the belief that police are a necessary evil. It’s this perception he wants to change and is battling against. But how?

According to Seitz, one way has been for the department to become more proactive, rather than reactive. Include the community and work with them to solve problems, without always resorting to tickets. In essence, influence human behavior without any actual punishment. One way this has been accomplished in Elkader, said Seitz, is the speed limit sign as you enter town off Highway 13. 

The idea behind it was to get people to follow the law without constantly issuing tickets and fines. It is also a way to enforce the law without resorting to using fear, which Seitz doesn’t believe works or is necessarily practical in most situations. 

“You want people to follow the law because of the benefits it provides to them and the community, not out of fear,” he said. 

It’s about breaking that “fearful stigma” and re-instilling a sense of trust, so people believe they can call the police for help and for public safety reasons. Policing should not be done using a one-size-fits-all approach, because every situation and person is unique and police officers should always aim for having a positive influence, rather than leaving the public with an increased negative perception. As Seitz aptly put it, “everyone wants to feel safe. No one wants to feel judged.”

Aside from implementing a philosophy and influencing the public, Seitz also has a human side—a side that exemplifies his helpful community ideals. It’s a side that has been seen running down Highway 13, chasing after a loose cow. Or being called to a house to remove a bat, which he admitted scared him. Or being called to remove an angry squirrel from someone’s basement. 

It’s calls like this that demonstrate the very human side of police officers. This is just a job; it’s not, and shouldn’t be, who they are. 

On the celebration of National Police Week, from May 10 to 16, which is to honor those officers who have lost their lives in the line of duty, Seitz has mixed emotions. 

“Any officer that passes away, affects me,” he admitted, but he also suggested that, while recognition is certainly honorable, Police Week doesn’t go far enough to address some underlying issues. That includes how to better prevent police deaths and shootings from ever occurring. 

While police officers, according to Seitz, are “doing a job people have strong opinions about and won’t do themselves,” it should also be acknowledged that they haven’t always done everything right. There exists, in many parts of the country, a very antagonistic relationship between the public and the police community, and Seitz believes Police Week should include teaching and training for officers on things like de-escalation tactics, mediation and problem solving, as well as enhanced education programs for the public to help foster positive change. 

Because, as Seitz said, every police funeral is “gut wrenching.” He added, “I need my officers to go home to their families.” 

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