It’s been 10 years since Chippewa County Sheriff’s Office Deputy Jason Zunker was killed while working at the scene of a traffic accident near Bloomer, but he hasn’t been forgotten.
“Absolutely positively not,” Sheriff James Kowalczyk said. “Very little time goes by where Jason’s name doesn’t come up in one way or another.”
About 50 people, including the department and other legal representatives in the area, Kowalczyk said, gathered near Zunker’s memorial outside of the Chippewa County Courthouse Friday to celebrate and honor his life.
Zunker, 31, was killed when he was hit while directing traffic following a Jan. 4, 2008 semi-trailer fire on Highway 53 near Bloomer. Zunker died from his injuries in Eau Claire shortly after midnight Jan. 5, 2008.
The then 21-year-old driver of the vehicle that hit Zunker was not criminally charged in Zunker’s death.
Kowalczyk said the Zunker’s death has resulted in the passing of a law that requires drivers to move over to the “extreme left or right” when they come upon emergency lights.
“The move-over law was all based on what happened unfortunately with Jason and what happened on on Highway 53,” Kowalczyk said. “I think it’s really a law that’s really appreciated.”
But impact of Zunker’s death — and the life he lived — has done more than impact legal statutes and proceedings.
Every year, Chippewa County Sheriff’s Office jailer Leah Berg organizes Jason’s Presents, with the goal of collecting donations to ensure every child in Chippewa County — regardless of their family’s financial status — has a present or toy to open during the holiday season. Jason’s Presents hosts a gift giveaway for families, and Berg makes sure families that cannot make it still receive presents, Kowalczyk said.
The department enlists the help of local businesses and stores to help them achieve this feat.
In one particular fundraising example, the Chippewa Family Restaurant donates one day’s worth of proceeds to Jason’s Presents, and the department pitches in working at the restaurant for that day. This year alone, the restaurant donated over $15,000 to Jason’s Presents, Kowalczyk said.
It’s a legacy and action Kowalczyk knows would have been Jason-approved — had he not started first.
“Would (Jason’s Presents) have happened if this tragic accident didn’t happen?” Kowalczyk asked. “Probably so, because Jason over the years was a very kind-hearted, giving individual.”
Some Wisconsin employers are not enjoying the deep pools of job applicants they used to draw, and the Chippewa Falls Police Department – which has begun the recruitment process once again – is no exception.
One of the department’s veteran officers is retiring Jan. 10, Chief Matt Kelm said Friday, and the department has begun casting its net for a new officer.
But the city doesn’t enjoy the wealth of policing candidates it once did. “There’s definitely a smaller pool (of applicants),” Kelm said. “It’s become a competitive process between departments … and between different service fields.”
Many local criminal justice students – including CVTC attendees – are branching into similar fields, becoming probation officers and social workers, Kelm said, but that means fewer are entering police work. He began noticing the downward trend in applications in 2013, and those low numbers have held steady since.
“I feel that law enforcement is hit a little harder than some other fields, because of … national attention to some of the negative aspects in law enforcement nationwide. I think that’s deterred people from coming into the field, unfortunately,” he said.
There is a saving grace to the process, however. Kelm speaks of his existing cadre of young officers in glowing terms, and said he sees a trend of young candidates with passion and drive. “The caliber of candidates (we see) is high,” he said. “You no longer get into this field to see if you like it. You get into it because it’s what you want to do with your life.”
The department is embracing technology – especially social media – to recruit new candidates, and Kelm said the department’s use of Facebook has been especially successful.
“You wouldn’t think law enforcement has to market themselves. We do. We’re competing for resources, for good people,” he said.
Kelm’s ideal candidate to fill the soon-to-be-empty post? Applicants with integrity top his list: “I don’t want robots out there. We want officers that are making intelligent decisions.”
When Kelm joined the Chippewa Falls Police Department, the hiring process took a full year. The last hire took almost exactly 90 days. Kelm is looking forward to the same speedy experience with his future recruit: “We’ve made huge strides in making the process quicker and easier.”
More details about the open position can be found at www.chippewafallspd.org/employment.html.
Although Vancouver, Canada-based rock band The Veer Union has been on tour since December, they might feel right at home in Chippewa Falls’ chilly temperatures at their show on Saturday, Jan. 13.
The group will play Every Buddy’s Bar and Grill at 19 W. Central Street. The show isn’t just for diehard rock fans, said the group’s lead vocalist.
“We’re a high-energy band, but not necessarily all screaming,” said Crispin Earl of The Veer Union. “We do an acoustic breakdown in the middle of our set, so there’s a little something for everybody.”
The Veer Union’s early 2018 tour began in Pennsylvania and will end in Seattle in February, but the band is familiar with Wisconsin, Earl said: “Wisconsin seems to have a pretty good (rock) scene.”
Rock fans might recognize the band from its current radio single, “Last Regret.” Its current tour is supporting a box set – “Decade: History of our Evolution,” to be released Feb. 9 – that unites the band’s past music with its newer sound.
It’s vital for fans of any musical group to see live shows, Earl said, even if the gig is a small one. “Get out and support your internationals, your local bands. The truth of the matter is, if you really like a band, you have to at least get out and see them at a live show. Chances are, if you don’t, those records might stop coming.”
The need to support lesser-known or younger musicians is mainly what drove Earl to create his own record label, Rock Shop Entertainment. The band has produced music with large labels in the past, including an EP and a debut album with Universal Motown Records, but Earl said he’s happy to work with his own label: “It works great for my band, and for helping other artists.”
The Veer Union, Filthy Sweet and Evernoir will perform at Every Buddy’s Bar and Grill in Chippewa Falls on Saturday, Jan. 13 at 7 p.m. Doors will open at 6 p.m. to those 21 and over. Tickets cost $10 in advance and $15 at the door.