Operation: River Watch, Police Reserves increase efforts to help prevent river drownings

By Kasie Von Haden

Lumen Editor

On Tuesday, March 6, the three-day search for missing UW-Stevens Point student, Eric Duffey, came to a close as divers pulled his body out of the Wisconsin River. Duffey went missing after leaving a bar where he was celebrating his 21st birthday.

The city of La Crosse is all too familiar with situations such as Duffey’s.

In February 2010, Craig Meyers, 21, drowned in the Mississippi River after celebrating at a wedding reception.

In October 2006, the body of Luke Homan, 21, was pulled from the Mississippi, several days after he had been seen at bars downtown.

In April 2004, Jared Dion, 21, went missing after leaving a bar downtown. His body was also pulled from the Mississippi River.

Aside from these three men, the La Crosse Tribune lists six additional similar situations since 1997, including former Viterbo student Nathan Kapfer, 20, who went missing in February 1998. His body was found in the Mississippi River in April that year.

In a Tribune article from February 2010, Chief of Police Ed Kondracki mentioned how much of a difference foot patrollers, like volunteers for Operation: River Watch and Police Reserves, had made, citing the 50 instances in which volunteers stopped people from going into the river between 2006 and 2010. Kondracki also called for an increase in monitoring.

Operation: River Watch and the Police Reserves are still making a difference today, and they have increased their efforts.

Operation: River Watch is a tri-campus student-run volunteer organization that volunteers to monitor Riverside Park on Thursday, Friday, and Saturday nights. Each campus is responsible for taking certain months of the years to fill the volunteer spots each night.

Riverside Park, which begins at the La Crosse Area Convention and Visitors Bureau on Veterans Memorial Drive and ends at the Logistics Health building just beyond Pearl Street, closes at 11 p.m. Operation: River Watch volunteers ask anyone who enters the park after 11 p.m. to leave.

At least two volunteers are required to cover each shift, but there are usually two to six people each shift, Josh Kohnhorst, a senior business education major from Tomah, Wis., told Lumen.

Kohnhorst serves as one of Viterbo’s volunteer coordinators for Operation: River Watch.

“We really focus on getting students involved,” Kohnhorst said. “The people who have drowned were college-age. As college age students, we have a social responsibility to help.”

Kohnhorst, who has had a number of instances in which he asked people to leave the park, knows Operation: River Watch’s participation has been worthwhile.

Operation: River Watch had 1,297 interceptions in 2011.

“Our efforts don’t go unnoticed,” Kohnhorst said. “We stop a lot of potentially terrible incidents from happening.”

Operation: River Watch was founded five years ago, and since then, Meyers’ river drowning has been the only one reported.

“Craig died in an area outside of our patrol,” Kohnhorst said. “It’s very unfortunate that it happened.”

The City of La Crosse Police Re“

The people who have drowned were college-age. As college age

students, we have a social responsibility to help.” serve unit has also been noted for their prevention efforts.

The Police Reserve unit is a professional volunteer organization within the La Crosse Police Department which includes civilian volunteers who undergo formal training and are required to fulfill a set of requirements to continue with the program. One of the group’s main focuses is Riverside Park Patrol.

“We patrol Riverside Park on weekend nights for a number of hours overnight,” Amanda Marshall, senior criminal justice major and sergeant shift leader for the Police Reserves told Lumen. “We essentially look for people who are in the park or who enter the park after it closes and politely ask them to leave.”

In addition to the number of Operation: River Watch volunteers who monitor the park, the Police Reserves can also have anywhere from one to eight members covering a shift.

“The biggest challenge for the Police Reserves is finding coverage for Riverside Park Patrol,” Marshall said. “We have multiple events each weekend and most of our members are students, too, so scheduling becomes a concern.”

Despite difficulties in scheduling, the Police Reserves haven’t missed a night of duty for four consecutive years.

While on duty, they can make anywhere from 15 to 30 contacts, Marshall said. “We’re there if something happens.

“We have direct contact with the police department,” Marshall said. “So if a situation arises, we can call dispatch and an officer can be there within minutes.”

In June of 2011, this benefit played a vital role in the rescuing of a man who fell into the river near the south end of Riverside Park. Marshall was on duty that night and immediately called dispatch.

“Officers arrived about a minute after I called,” Marshall said. “The police officers took over the scene from there and the man was rescued shortly thereafter.”

Viterbo’s Operation: River Watch volunteers are responsible for covering the month of April. Students who are interested in covering a shift can contact Josh Kohnhorst at jkohnh01721@viterbo.edu.

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