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Chief Felt, Sheriff Holien share concerns, priorities in Willmar

WILLMAR - For the top two law enforcement officers in Willmar and Kandiyohi County, having one of their officers harmed in the line of duty is at the top of their worry list.

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Erica Dischino / Tribune Willmar Police Chief Jim Felt, left, and Kandiyohi County Sheriff Eric Holien are shown Tuesday outside of the Kandiyohi County Law Enforcement Center in Willmar. The two spoke to community members Thursday at the Willmar Lakes Area Chamber of Commerce "Lunch with Leaders" education series.

WILLMAR – For the top two law enforcement officers in Willmar and Kandiyohi County, having one of their officers harmed in the line of duty is at the top of their worry list.

When Willmar Police Chief Jim Felt was notified on a summer evening in 2017 that two patrol officers were involved in a shooting, one of his immediate fears was for the safety of the officers.

“With the world the way it is and the violence out there and the challenges and the danger, that’s what keeps me up at night,” he said.

Felt and Kandiyohi County Sheriff Eric Holien were the speakers Thursday at “Lunch with Leaders,” an ongoing series by the Willmar Lakes Area Chamber of Commerce to introduce community influencers and create an opportunity for dialogue and education.

The turnout Thursday at Bremer Bank was the largest to date. Despite bitterly cold weather, 40-some people showed up to hear Felt and Holien talk about the priorities, challenges and upcoming initiatives within their departments, as well as field questions from the audience.

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Holien, the newly elected sheriff of Kandiyohi County, took over the position earlier this month. He leads a department of 104 employees that includes sheriff’s deputies, jail staff, dispatchers and support staff. Felt, who has been Willmar police chief for the past four years, oversees 35 sworn officers plus four civilian employees and four part-time employees.

Both said the local rate of violent crime remains relatively low but other types of crime, such as burglaries and drug cases, tend to fluctuate.

Last year the Willmar Police Department averaged 50 to 60 calls for service per day, which is an uptick in activity, Felt said.

“We’re busy but we’re keeping up,” he said.

Narcotics play a key role in the local crime rate, Holien pointed out. “A lot of that is driven by the drug trade.”

He and Felt said methamphetamine is still the most prevalent drug in Willmar and Kandiyohi County, but they both assured their audience that crime and drug activity is no worse locally than in other Minnesota communities of similar size.

Nor is Kandiyohi County exempt from human trafficking and sex trafficking, they said.

“I will tell you it happens here. It happens all over rural Minnesota,” Holien said.

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One problem that has spiked dramatically is the number of frauds and scams being reported to local law enforcement.

“That’s just absolutely exploding,” Felt said.

He and Holien also noted that although local gang activity is nowhere near as prevalent as it was in the 1990s, it has not disappeared.

“It’s still out there. It’s hidden a lot more,” Felt said.

Felt and Holien outlined some of the initiatives they’re working on this year.

The implementation of body-worn cameras is underway in both departments. The Willmar Police Department is continuing with a new Community Emergency Response Team program that trains volunteers in disaster preparedness. It also has launched a local Explorers chapter to introduce youths to law enforcement and stimulate their interest in a law enforcement career.

A priority for Holien is to increase countywide outreach by the Sheriff’s Office and forge ties with groups that may feel marginalized or underrepresented.

“What I’m looking to do is reconnect with some of the communities we serve,” he said.

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He also hopes to introduce the “Refuse to Be a Victim” program aimed at educating members of the public to better protect themselves from fraud, date rape, burglary and more. Another goal of his is to create an online reporting system for the public.

He and Felt emphasized an open-door policy and eagerness to hear about the public’s concerns.

No phone call or tip is too small, Felt said. “Sometimes that little bitty puzzle piece can break a case wide open.”

Small scraps of information “ultimately could be important to us,” Holien agreed.

“One of the things I always tell people is don’t be afraid to call,” he said. “Prevention is easier than trying to work an entire case after the fact. Reach out to us.”

Anne Polta / Tribune A full house was on hand Thursday to hear from Jim Felt, Willmar Chief of Police, and Eric Holien, Kandiyohi County Sheriff, at the Willmar Lakes Area Chamber of Commerce "Lunch with Leaders" education series.
Anne Polta / Tribune A full house was on hand Thursday to hear from Jim Felt, Willmar Chief of Police, and Eric Holien, Kandiyohi County Sheriff, at the Willmar Lakes Area Chamber of Commerce "Lunch with Leaders" education series.

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