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Increased autopsies, jail violence in St. Croix County prompt funding requests

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This video still depicts a St. Croix County jail inmate throwing items at a camera inside his cell. Image courtesy of St. Croix County Sheriff's Office2 / 4
The St. Croix County Sheriff's Office showed members of a committee several videos June 28, including this one, a still shot of which depicts an inmate rushing at a jail nurse. Image courtesy of St. Croix County Sheriff's Office3 / 4
This video still depicts a St. Croix County jail inmate tearing at a TV set in a cellblock day room. Image courtesy of St. Croix County Sheriff's Office4 / 4

St. Croix County officials described last week how funding proposals would address a sharp increase in county autopsies and a rise in jail violence.

The number of autopsies performed in the county has doubled over the past year, St. Croix County Medical Examiner Patty Schachtner told members of the Public Protection and Judiciary Committee at their June 28 meeting.

Her presentation, which described how a $500,000 digital autopsy machine would allow her staff to meet the growing demand, was followed by Sheriff Scott Knudson, who showed video recordings of jail violence.

He said his presentation was in response to a concern among some St. Croix County Board members who cast doubt on the need for a special-needs wing in the jail. A proposal to borrow $5.3 million for the jail expansion has struggled at the County Board level, where support has ebbed and flowed.

Knudson showed committee members a video compilation from the past year.

"Working in the jail is probably one of the most difficult positions for any county employee," Knudson said.

The videos, nine in all, included one of an inmate awaiting a competency exam who stripped naked and fought with three jailers before being tased into submission. Others depicted an inmate rushing a jail nurse, an inmate destroying electronics and phone equipment during a day-room rampage and one of an inmate destroying a sprinkler head in a jail cell.

"Each one of these folks would have been a candidate for placement in those special cells," Knudson said, referring to the proposed 10-cell special-needs wing.

When the jail's receiving cells are full, people in crisis or with special needs end up in general cellblocks. He then showed a video of two men fighting in a crowded day room before jailers rushed in and separated the inmates.

"These people that fight, we have nowhere to put them because our receiving cells are full," Knudson said.

The proposal will be reconsidered in a revamped funding package that strips out one project from the three-pronged funding request that twice failed to garner enough County Board support. The package jettisons funding for a new mobile command vehicle. Rather than paying for the command vehicle with borrowed funds, County Board members will consider funding it through the next capital improvement plan.

County Administrator Pat Thompson said the videos were compelling. One criticism among County Board members about the jail project was that it hadn't first been studied.

Thompson said the videos are all the proof he needed.

"I don't know how anyone could listen to the sheriff and the undersheriff and watch that video and say there's not a problem," he said, calling requests for a study a "delay."

Supervisors in August will be presented with a scaled-down package that includes only the jail project and an upgrade to the Government Center's heating-ventilation-air-conditioning system.

Schachtner, who also serves as District 10's state senator, told Public Protection and Judiciary Committee members how a Lodox digital autopsy machine would function as "an MRI for dead people." Schachtner pitched the technology as both a necessary device and one that could become a revenue generator if other counties seek to use it.

The machine would allow virtual autopsies to be completed by someone other forensic pathologists, who Schachtner said are in short supply, while the demand for autopsies grows. She said a report is then generated that is read by a forensic pathologist who can complete the process without having to touch a scalpel.

Schachtner said all suspicious-death cases would require a standard, hands-on autopsy.

She said the machine would be used for unattended, but non-suspicious deaths — a segment she said is growing. The number of deaths handled by the St. Croix County Medical Examiner's office in 2006 was 171; Schachtner said the county reached that number in April this year.

"We probably will be at 1,000 cases by 2024," she said.

Committee members did not take action on the Lodox item, which will be included among public safety items submitted in the capital improvement plan County Board members will consider later this year.

Mike Longaecker

Mike Longaecker is a regional/enterprise reporter for RiverTown Multimedia. His coverage includes St. Croix County government, higher education and state politics in Wisconsin. 

(651) 301-7867
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