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DA digs into new job

Sean Froelich says his transition from police officer to lawyer to prosecutor seems like a natural progression. <i>Judy Wiff photo</i>

ELLSWORTH -- At 9 a.m. Monday Sean Froelich was sworn in as Pierce County's district attorney.

At 9:15 he represented the county in a criminal hearing. It was the first time he had been in a courtroom as a prosecutor, not just as an observer or to testify as a police officer.

Froelich, 33, graduated from William Mitchell College of Law in 2010, passed his Minnesota Bar exam in early 2011 and his Wisconsin Bar exam in May 2011.

This past August he won the Pierce County DA primary, defeating 25-year incumbent John O'Boyle. With no other declared candidates, Froelich slid through the general election.

Froelich, who received encouragement to challenge O'Boyle from law enforcement officers as well as members of the general public, said he's been told he'll do just fine.

"People were very supportive," he said. "They said, 'You'll do great.' They were very positive."

Still, said Froelich, "It got to be a little more overwhelming when I got closer to the date (of taking office)."

A graduate of Tomah High School, he attended UW-River Falls, majoring in political science and minoring in criminal justice.

About midway through college, he became a reserve officer with the River Falls Police Department.

Though none of his family had been in law enforcement, Froelich said he was fascinated by the field.

"I enjoy being surrounded by people, being active and having a role that contributes to something bigger," he said. "I enjoy helping people."

After three years as a reserve officer, he worked three years as a regular River Falls policeman and later part-time for both the Ellsworth Police Department and the Pierce County Sheriff's Department.

"I loved law enforcement, but I wanted to take this a step further ... this seemed like a natural step to take," said Froelich of his admission to law school. "For me it just made sense."

While at William Mitchell, he had thought of becoming a prosecutor but starting out as an assistant district attorney.

"I wanted to get into the district attorney's office. It was on my mind." said Froelich. "Of course, I wanted some experience going into it."

He took a job in the human resources department of Fraser-Minnesota, a nonprofit that serves special needs children and adults. The position of compliance officer involved managing the firm's ethics program, working with health privacy and employee-relations issues and doing legal research.

Encouraged to run

Froelich said he did represent a person in litigation once, but that matter settled well before court. He also testified at hearings, pre-trials and trials while working as a police officer.

With an election scheduled for fall 2012, Froelich said he was encouraged by others to register as a candidate.

"I still keep in contact with people in the law enforcement community, and they really expressed a need for change," he said, adding, "I felt I could hit the ground running."

Froelich said dissatisfaction with O'Boyle was festering back when he was working as a police officer.

"I didn't experience it directly, but I certainly heard from other officers," he said.

Froelich said he announced his candidacy as a Democrat because he felt that party was most in sync with his own ideology.

The choice, say some, made it easier for him to upset the incumbent, also a Democrat. With low voter turnout and a hot Republican primary, Froelich handily defeat O'Boyle by a vote of 859-593 in August, leaving the newcomer as the only DA candidate on the general election ballot.

But he said he would have had a good chance of beating O'Boyle even if it hadn't been in the primary.

"I still think the people wanted to see a change," said Froelich.

After the August win, while still working fulltime at his job in Burnsville, Minn., Froelich set about preparing to become a prosecutor.

"I would spend as much time as I could in the courtroom, and I met with other attorneys," he said. He also went to restorative justice programs -- "just trying to do as much as I could while balancing everything else."

He said he got great advice from many people.

Also, said Froelich, the two experienced assistant district attorneys -- fulltime ADA Bill Thorie and part-time ADA Greg Amann -- in the office "were a great help."

"It's so incredible," said Froelich. "Honestly they were glad to help."

On his first day in office, he wasn't sure how the work would sift out but expects at first to depend heavily on the office's experienced staff as well as the ADAs.

"I'm not exactly sure how the balance will be, but I certainly intend to do my share," he said of dividing the caseload.

Communication is priority

As for priorities, "I think communication is the biggest thing -- generally trying to understand the law enforcement perspective when reviewing a case. I think that's very important."

He said rather than communicating by memo, he will try to talk to officers directly, either in person or by phone. Also he plans to offer ongoing information on changes in law or with the justice system.

His first goal, said Froelich, is to create a work environment in which everyone can work efficiently together.

"Everyone is only as strong as the team they work with," he said.

And, he said, he needs to learn the administrative functions of his new position.

In early December he attended a three-day newly elected DA conference with about 18 other brand new district attorneys.

He also attended an operating while under the influence conference in October and a Statewide Prosecutor Education and Training program put on by the Wisconsin Department of Justice.

Judy Wiff

Judy Wiff has been regional editor for RiverTown’s Wisconsin newspapers since 1996. She holds a bachelor’s degree in journalism and sociology from UW-River Falls. She has worked as a reporter for several weekly newspapers in Wisconsin.