COLUMBIA — Sgt. Jill Wieneke isn't afraid of talking to reporters; she's been in lots of hair-raising situations.
Though her police career began with the fairly mundane task of entering warrants for the Boone County Sheriff’s Department, Wieneke worked as an undercover narcotics officer with the Drug Task Force of the Missouri State Highway Patrol for about two years. She took on a fake identity and hobnobbed with meth and cocaine dealers, wearing a wire to gather evidence.
Now, she has been put in charge of an expanded public relations unit, charged with keeping the media happy, fulfilling Sunshine Law requests, acting as liaison to the Citizens Police Review Board, and overseeing accreditation and policy.
She compared her new job to her past work.
"It's different. Where in those situations — whether it was narc work or uniform work or whatever it was — your stress level was more about safety," Wieneke said.
The new stress is the sheer quantity of media in Columbia.
“To try to provide all the information for the Police Department, as one person, to three TV stations, two daily print newspapers, multiple other publications — it’s very tough,” Wieneke said. “I can honestly say, I probably have been stressed more in this job than I ever was in uniformed police work.”
Wieneke began working as a warrant clerk for the Boone County Sheriff's Department in 1997. The job entailed receiving warrants from the courts and entering them into the department's computer system.
Life took an interesting turn when Wieneke began riding along with other deputies and with Columbia police officers. One night, she was on a ride-along with a Columbia police officer when he was dispatched to a peace disturbance call.
“It was a really simple thing — college kids having a party, no big deal,” Wieneke said.
She and the officer got out of the car and approached the door. A college-age woman opened the door as music blared inside.
“She opens the door, and as soon as she opens the door, there’s gunshots," Wieneke said. "I could tell they were coming from behind us, and I immediately lay down in the front yard, because that’s just my reaction.”
The other officer ordered the girl to turn the music down and told Wieneke to get back in the car. They drove a few blocks over to where a man had been shot in the street. The other officer dropped Wieneke off so he could work the shooting.
The effect was instantaneous.
"That probably went a long way toward me really getting interested — the day to day not knowing what you're going to encounter," she said.
A double life
She enrolled at MU's Law Enforcement Training Institute — also known as the police academy. Then she worked as an officer for six months in the Ashland Police Department.
In the fall of 1999, she moved to the Lake of the Ozarks, where, with the help of the Missouri State Highway Patrol, she established a new identity and began making cases against drug dealers.
“I worked under a fake name. I had a fake driver’s license. I had a fake criminal history. I had a fake job bartending,” Wieneke said. “When I was at the lake, I was that person.”
It was all crucial to getting to know people involved in the drug trade, either on her own or through informants, several of whom were strippers.
She often worked in what she described as a “party atmosphere,” and dealers rarely questioned whether she actually used drugs or not. Being a woman helped, she said.
“Men are a lot less suspicious of women," Wieneke said. "We can use distraction techniques,” like joking and girl talk.
"In my dealings with people, they'll ask you on a date or something like that — so clearly there are other things going on in their mind other than whether or not I'm a police officer," Wieneke said.
But the double life was sometimes challenging.
She likened it to acting and said she often “rehearsed” her identity. To help keep her identities straight, she picked a theme. She chose names that were gender ambiguous, like “Alex” and “Taylor.” Though 10 years have passed since she worked undercover, she still won't disclose the last names she used because old contacts might recognize them.
One night, her artifice almost failed. At a meeting arranged by an informant, she found herself alone in a house with a meth dealer who wouldn't take no for an answer. He demanded that she get high with him before he would let her leave the house. A rifle was propped against the triple-locked door.
"Finally, he just laid it out for me: 'You're not leaving this house till you shoot up with me,'" she recalled.
She bargained with him, saying she would come back after a job interview she made up on the spot. She told him she just needed to get her pager out of her truck to leave as collateral — so he'd know she'd come back.
She threw open the locks as fast as she could and got out before he could get to the rifle.
"I got to my truck, and in one motion I hit the lock, opened the door, shoved the keys into the ignition and slammed it in reverse," she recalled.
Experiences like that took a toll on her personal life. She rarely went home.
“It got to the point where I was called my other name more than I was called Jill because I didn’t go back to Columbia that much,” Wieneke said.
Her work was also stressful on her parents, she said.
“I know there’s some really bad people out there,” said Mike Wieneke, her father.
He said he was concerned for his daughter because of the people she had to interact with, but he tried to take a light-hearted approach to her work. He would send her birthday cards to whatever name she was using at the time, he said.
When Wieneke left the task force in 2001, her parents supported the decision.
“They weren’t unhappy when I quit doing it,” she said.
A less dangerous assignment
Wieneke began working with the Columbia Police Department in October 2005. She finished field training and began working on her own in early spring of 2006. She was assigned to the midnight shift — from 11 p.m. to 7 a.m — and worked the beat covering the city center and First Ward.
While working patrol, Wieneke also worked on the department’s Forensic Evidence Team. She photographed crime scenes and collected evidence. The work drew from her longtime interest in photography, she said.
She worked patrol up until July 2010, when she was appointed as a public information officer under Officer Jessie Haden. Wieneke became the sole public information officer in December 2010 after Haden was reassigned because of an inter-departmental scandal.
The incident was hard to deal with, Wieneke said.
"There I was on TV and in the newspaper having to talk about that situation," she said. "I worked with Jessie and she was a good resource for me, and things changed very quickly."
Since that time, Wieneke has been the public information officer and primary media contact for the Police Department. Her recent promotion to sergeant, effective Jan. 30, will change that, she said.
With her promotion comes a supervisor role. Wieneke will now head the Police Department’s new Public Relations Unit and will report directly to Police Chief Ken Burton.
"The new Public Relations Unit will wear many hats," Burton said. "They've got a lot of different responsibilities."
Two new public information officers — one of whom Wieneke has already chosen — will share the work of handling media requests and public information. Latisha Stroer, a former detective with the Major Crimes Unit, will begin work with the unit March 6.
Though Wieneke will still have some contact with the media, she will be the department’s liaison to the Citizens Police Review Board and will handle Sunshine Law requests. She will also supervise the officer in charge of the Office of Neighborhood Services and the officer in charge of policy and accreditation.
She has high expectations for the unit. Though she professes to be a bit of a technophobe, she has added Twitter to the department's arsenal of communications tools and hopes the department will one day have a Facebook page.
“My ultimate goal is that we are able to provide citizens, reporters, the information they want and need and create positive relations with the public," Wieneke said.
Follow Wieneke on Twitter at @CPD_PIO_Jill.