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Mike Martens: A local lawman for 30 years

By Staff | Apr 25, 2014

Mike Martens has faithfully served Emmet County for 30 years. Photo by Michael Tidemann

These days, working at the same place for any length of time is an accomplishment.

But for three decades?

Now that’s dedication and commitment.

Emmet County sheriff Mike Martens has been working for Emmet County for 30 years now, much of that as either chief deputy or sheriff. During that time, he’s seen changes in the role of law enforcement and the technology available to those who have the job of protecting all of us.

For Martens, knowing the people here helps a lot.

Growing up just over the Dickinson County line, Martens graduated from Estherville High School in 1981 then Iowa Lakes Community College.

He started part-time at Arnolds Park, then was contacted by the Estherville chief of police about a part-time position right in Estherville, so he went there. Meanwhile, a spot opened in Spencer where he’d applied earlier. He served there for two months before the call came from Emmet County where he’s been ever since.

Starting as a patrol deputy, Martens was promoted to sergeant in 1988 then to chief deputy in 1995. In 2008, he was elected Emmet County sheriff, replacing Larry Lamack.

During his tenure, Martens has seen a lot of changes in law enforcement, probably most noticeably in technology. When he first started, officers either typed their reports or a dispatcher typed them for them. Docketing and fee books also were done by hand. Now everything is on computer.

“It has saved a great deal of time,” said Martens. “It was a necessary step because of volume. I don’t think there’s any doubt that our role and our activities have changed since I started.”

“Even the way in which we communicate has changed,” said Martens. “When I started, our two-way radios had four channels and now they have channels to communicate with many different entities from state and county snowplows, ambulance services, fire vehicles, EMA and neighboring counties’ radio systems. In addition, it used to be when sheriff’s staff left their car there was not much chance they could communicate with dispatch by using their portable radio because of radio range.

“Eventually in the 1990’s, former sheriff Lamack got the first radio repeater which helped communicate with dispatch,” said Martens. “Today we now have three radio repeaters which now makes portable communications almost seamless. There are also now radio repeaters in place for the county’s fire departments. They can also communicate by portable while on a fire scene and they also greatly add range to the firefighters’ pagers by bringing the towers closer to the community they serve. These devices have greatly contributed to officer, firefighter and citizens’ safety.

“The squad cars also now have laptop computers in them. That also has made staff more efficient, and allowed staff to have access to an amount of information in the squad car that was only dreamed of 30 years ago.”

Now, people have greater expectations from the department.

“In our advanced society people expect more from their public servants and we try to provide that every day,” said Martens.

That heavier volume has of course changed the roles that department employees play. Before, the sheriff and deputies took calls for service, patrolled the entire county, conducted investigations, serviced civil process and took care of the prisoners in the Emmet County jail. Today, there are four jailers to take care of the jail so the patrol staff can be on the road where they can be of more service.

So in regard to jailers, said Martens, “I can’t imagine operating without them now.”

When Martens started with the department, one deputy covered 408 square miles.

That doesn’t mean a lot of staff have been added. Martens said just two deputies have been added over the last 30 years – one in 1987 and another in 1995. “We’ve been static since then,” said Martens.

And there are different problems now.

“Drug abuse has become a huge problem,” said Martens. “We see a lot more of it than when I started.”

While it used to be rare for deputies to make an arrest for marijuana possession, finding pot is common now.

And there’s also meth.

“Now it’s around us,” Martens said. “I consider meth a major problem here. I consider drug and alcohol abuse a major problem in our area.”

Growing up here, Martens didn’t see nearly the problems that he does now. He urges citizens who want to help to be aware of their environment and surroundings and to not put themselves into jeopardy where they will be exposed to drug activity. If they do notice any drug activity, they’re encouraged to tell a law officer.

“Our smaller towns are particularly vulnerable,” said Martens, noting that some criminal elements might want to move to a smaller town because it could offer anonymity. “They (criminals) want to be in an area where there’s a lower level of law-enforcement protection,” Martens said.

Between meth and prescription drug abuse, people could be facing very dangerous people. And, while the department is staffed a little better than when Martens started, a deputy may often find himself handling a tense situation alone.

“It’s those kinds of people you have to handle alone in the field,” said Martens.

A sheriff’s deputy is by no means limited to law enforcement, though. The deputy may also handling civil process, jail duties and prisoner transports. Often, a deputy can be the first on the scene to give first aid. Today, Martens tries to roll a defibrillator in every car and to make sure deputies have first-aid equipment.

Martens wants the public to know that the department is there to protect them, and he deeply appreciates the support he’s had. And he’s proud of the citizens of Emmet County and the office of sheriff.

“I hope the citizens are happy with me,” he said.

Martens makes sure his deputies are proactive with visible patrols. “We want to have that deterrent shock value,” he said.

He’s also proactive in seeking out violations of the law – whether criminal or aggressive traffic enforcement to minimize traffic accidents and deaths.

While he’s definitely seen his share of tragedy, Martens has also had his rewards.

“I get a lot of reward from a lot of different things,” he said. “It’s nice when you know when you’ve made an influence – when you’re made an impact.”

A lot of that satisfaction comes from solving cases and rendering first aid. And, despite the challenges, Martens always tries to remain positive.

“I try to stay on the bright side of things,” he said. “I try to surround myself personally and professionally with people that are positive people. I have also had a very supportive wife and family.”

It helps a lot too that he loves the people and the area.

“This is a wonderful place to raise a family,” said Martens. “It’s a nice place to call home. I can’t imagine living anywhere else.”