Written by Dorothy Bliskey
Photography by Travis Pohl of E&M Photography
If you happen to experience a flat tire or your car breaks down on the interstate, it just might be Wisconsin State Patrol Trooper Erica Ballweg-Larsen who comes to your aid.
Erica is one of 45 women in a field predominately comprised of men. The first women in the Wisconsin State Patrol were sworn in as officers in 1975 as members of the 34th Recruit Class. Since then, the highest ranking female was Major Sandy Huxtable who has since retired.
There are 399 sworn trooper positions available in the Wisconsin State Patrol, which currently has 38 unfilled more recruits,” Erica said, noting she is assisting with recruiting in addition to her patrol work.
Entering a career as a Wisconsin State Patrol trooper nearly three years ago, Erica, 25, is living a dream she’s had since a child when she watched and listened to her parents discuss their careers in law enforcement. “They influenced me greatly in my career choice and in my desire to want to help others and give back to the community.”
“Each day worked has an impact on someone’s life in one way or another, whether it be changing a tire on a vehicle for an elderly person or arresting an im¬paired driver,” Erica said. “At the end of the day, knowing that I’ve helped make a difference is always a great feeling.”
After earning a four-year degree in criminal justice at UW-Oshkosh, Erica was drawn to the Wisconsin State Patrol. “Primarily, I was interested in joining because of the training. The Patrol re¬quires nearly six month of training which is focused on not only the requirements from the Department of Justice, but also requirements that are State Patrol specific,” Erica explained. “I also liked the option of having state-wide jurisdiction, flexibility to focus on things that I’m interested in enforcing, and the privilege to have a take-home cruiser.”
“It’s a huge benefit to have our own cruiser. It means we start and end our shift in our driveway rather than having to drive to a police station and share a vehicle with other officers. “It’s beneficial because we don’t have to spend time changing out equipment and can respond immediately to calls as we leave our driveway.”
The training program is excellent, according to Erica. “It instills discipline and respect into new recruits.”
The rigorous six months of training takes place at the Wisconsin State Patrol Academy at Fort McCoy. Classrooms, dormitories and a food hall are surround¬ed by 50 acres at the Ft. McCoy military base in western Wisconsin.
Recruits are given the opportunity to choose from open positions located throughout the state after successfully completing the training. “These choices are based on how each recruit ranks during the academy,” Erica said. “For ex¬ample, the recruit that ranks the highest will get first choice at what is available.” Class rank is based on multiple categories such as classroom testing, scenarios, physical fitness, and firearm scores, to name a few.
After completing the 26-week training, an additional 12-week field training process must be completed before new troopers and inspectors are able to patrol in their own vehicle. New troopers and inspectors must also successfully complete a two-year probationary period.
Erica belongs to an interstate troop out of the Southwest Region – DeForest Post of the Wisconsin State Patrol. It covers nearly 32 miles of interstate. “Since we have state-wide jurisdiction, we don’t always cover the same area or county each day,” Erica said, noting the interstate has 24-hour coverage which is typically run in three shifts and includes weekends and holidays. “That makes this job a lot different than most and causes officers to be away from their families quite often,” Erica said.
In addition to patrolling the high¬ways, Erica also gets involved in training and spreading the word on the profession. She helps with recruitment and gives presentations at middle schools and high schools, telling students about the benefits of joining the State Patrol. She also gives driver’s education presentations on safety, recapping new laws so instructors know how to instruct.
“My ultimate goal is to become an instructor at the Wisconsin State Patrol Academy, become a Field Training Officer, and become a member of the Honor Guard Unit,” Erica said, noting she is already a fitness assessor for candidates entering the field.
As for one of the biggest dangers on the roadway for officers and travelers, Erica points to the increase in inattentive driving. “There are several ways a person can be distracted while driving today: cell phones, tablets, GPS, radios, MP3 players — the list can go on and on,” Erica said. “The best practice is to program these devices prior to driving or to utilize a hands-free option if the vehicle has the capability. Taking your eyes off the road for as little as five seconds could be a matter of life or death, especially when traveling at highway speeds.”
A vast majority of the rules of the road she sees being broken are failing to wear a seatbelt, speeding, and operating while under the influence of alcohol or drugs.
“One of the newest laws people need to be aware of is that the governor recently enacted that a fourth offense of Operating While under the Influence is a felony, no matter what,” Erica said. “Previously a fourth offense was a felony only if it occurred within 5 years of the third offense. A first offense still remains a civil ruling unless it causes death or bodily harm to another person,” Erica said, noting there are additional violations if a passenger in the car is under the age of 16.
Tips Erica has for staying safe on the roads include the following: 1) Move over or slow down when you see an emergency vehicle, highway maintenance vehicle, or broken down vehicle on the shoulder; 2) yield to the right when you observe an emergency vehicle responding to a call (this includes multi-lane highways or the interstate system) and 3) don’t drink and drive.
If there’s any bias on the road because she’s a female, Erica hasn’t witnessed it. “Having a confident and professional demeanor while treating people fairly will go a long way in this career,” Erica said. “That’s not only true for women, but for men too. I always try to think about it like this: If I was in this person’s position, how would I want to be treated?”
NOTE: The Wisconsin State Patrol is currently recruiting and accepting applications for the 63rd Recruit Class which is scheduled to begin on September 24, 2017 and graduate on March 30, 2018. The application deadline is March 12, 2017. To locate the application, please go to wisc.jobs and search for StatePatrol Trooper or Inspector.