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Our View: Jail lawsuits reflects on leadership issues

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Six years ago St. Croix County and its insurance company paid nearly $7 million to settle a lawsuit filed on behalf of nearly 2,000 people who were unlawfully strip-searched at the jail.

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The county's insurance premiums climbed from $100,000 to nearly $400,000 annually, jailers were disciplined, and an outside attorney was hired to review Sheriff's Department policies. County taxpayers are still anteing up $390,000 a year to pay off the loan the county took out to settle the claims.

Five years ago, the county and Wisconsin Municipal Mutual Insurance Company forked over $60,000 to settle another federal lawsuit brought by a young woman, who was also illegally searched but not included in the class action case.

Earlier this year St. Croix and WMMIC reached a $1 million settlement with a family of a man who died while in the jail.

The death was investigated right after it happened, a jail supervisor resigned, and three other jailers were suspended with pay but went back on duty four months later.

The insurance company and its members stood beside St. Croix five years ago, helped with the review of policies and gave the county a discount in insurance premiums.

But now the other 16 members of the cooperative are justifiably losing patience. In the 20 years since WMMIC was formed, half its losses are due to St. Croix County claims.

This year St. Croix's liability insurance premiums that had finally started to come down after the first settlement will spike again.

That says nothing about the human toll of losing a son or the indignity of being strip searched after being arrested, not even convicted, of a minor infraction.

It's a no brainer. Either the county's jail policies aren't what they should be or jail staff is not following policy.

The county corporation counsel's staff is reviewing jail policies again, but the process is slow.

Corporation Counsel Greg Timmerman says it appears there are persons related to the jail operation who still don't understand the importance of jail policies and the importance of following them once they are written. He doesn't think there's anything intentional going on, but probably a lack of understanding of proper procedure.

That, we believe, shows a lack of leadership and a failure of supervision.

While it's important that jail policies be reviewed and rewritten, they mean nothing if they aren't understood and followed by each and every jail shift, each and every jailer.

Although he appears to being doing a good job in most areas, the responsibility for the jail/lawsuit gaffs lies at the feet of the man we elected and re-elected to lead the Sheriff's Department: Sheriff Dennis Hillstead.

To add insult to injury: Did you think your taxes would go down after 2011 when the county pays off the first jail settlement?

Don't start spending that cash. The county's finance leaders are already making plans for the money. Apparently they think you've gotten so used to paying it, you'll keep on writing the checks without question.

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