|| 'Clean-cut farm kid' has loved his life in law enforcement
Comment on this story
ALEDO -- Police Chief Michael Sponsler has spent his professional life, nearly 40 years, in law enforcement.
His career stops have included dispatcher and then deputy with the Mercer County Sheriff's Department, several positions during 28 1/2 years with the Rock Island Police Department, and then police chief in Aledo for the last few years. He said the profession never has gone stale for him.
Now 61, Chief Sponsler has witnessed the evolution of law enforcement and training. When he started, there were no portable radios. Pay phones, land lines and telephone books were still relevant.
Through all the changes, however, he has seen an essential truth about the job: helping people.
"I enjoy working with others, working with people to solve problems," Chief Sponsler said.
He grew up on a farm near Aledo, the son of Robert and Dorothy Sponsler. He said his parents encouraged him to choose a career he wanted. Chief Sponsler acknowledges he could have farmed for a living.
"Both my mom and dad encouraged me about education," he said. "I had a golden opportunity. I was the only child. Dad had some very good farm ground, and I knew there was a great opportunity there.
"Dad was so open. He and Mom encouraged me to get an education, but if I wanted to farm, they would more than welcome me back to the farm. They said, 'We'll love and support you if you go a different route.'"
He said he's grateful to his parents for their encouragement and their wisdom. His father died in 1987 of a heart attack. His mother, Dorothy, lives in a nursing home in Aledo.
Chief Sponslor attended Black Hawk College East in Kewanee, graduating in 1973.
"There were five or six of us from my high school class," he said. "All farm boys. We went there and lived together in an apartment. I originally thought I would someday be back home farming."
But then a dispatcher's job opened up at the Mercer County Sheriff's Department.
"It was second shift, from 4 p.m. to midnight," the chief said. "I don't know what caught my eye about it. One thing, I could pick up some extra income, so I applied.
"Then I really got interested in law enforcement. I went ahead and got my degree at Black Hawk. Then, about a month before I turned 21, a deputy left the sheriff's department."
Chief Sponsler said the sheriff at the time, Lorenzo "Bud" Rausch, knew how much he wanted to be a deputy.
"So there was about a month before I turned 21, and (the sheriff) gave me that position," Chief Sponsler said. "The day I turned 21, I pulled my first eight-hour shift being a deputy with the Mercer County Sheriff's Department.
"That was in January 1974."
One of his early influences, he said, was Steve Struble, who was a Mercer County deputy at the time, and then went on to work for the Illinois State Police.
"I saw this guy had a passion for law enforcement," Chief Sponsler said.
But Chief Sponsler found his options limited in a small sheriff's department when it came to promotions.
He saw his friend Steve Struble moving up, and Chief Sponsler wanted to expand his career, too, he said. Then he saw an advertisement in the newspaper saying Rock Island was offering tests for potential police officers.
"I went and took their test," he said. "The next thing I knew, I was hired by them. I started there April 1, 1977."
For the next 28 1/2 years, Chief Sponsler served in a number of jobs with the Rock Island Police Department, retiring as a sergeant.
"I got to do so many things," he said. "If there was one thing I could change, I kick myself for not going back and getting a bachelor's degree. I thought about it. I spent a semester at St. Ambrose (University in Davenport). Western Illinois had a premier program, but that was in Macomb, before they had a Quad-Cities campus."
The pluses, though, have outweighed the minuses, Chief Sponsler said. He acknowledged the job was a huge change for him when he first started.
"I got moved around pretty quick," he said. "I had some experience, and had been to PTI (Police Training Institute). After spending three weeks on the day shift learning about the department, I got moved to third shift right away.
"My very first night was riding third shift with Terry Dove."
Mr. Dove has also served as Aledo's police chief and has since retired.
At Rock Island, Chief Sponsler said, he went through eight police chiefs. He said some chiefs, such as Ron Hansen, "really professionalized the department. He created a SWAT team, a street-crimes unit. He was very proactive.
"And, he was always out there. It was unbelievable. Even the third shifts, he'd be right out there with you. I'll never forget one night, an officer got hit by a 2-by-4 in Arsenal Courts. The chief put us down there in four-man walking teams. It was zero-tolerance stuff, and he was right down there with us."
Chief Sponsler did a variety of jobs with RIPD. He was a K-9 officer, an officer with the D.A.R.E. (Drug Abuse Resistance Education) program, an agent with the Quad City Metropolitan Enforcement Group, a crime-scene evidence technician, a field training officer, and an internal affairs worker. He was president of the local Fraternal Order of Police for 12 years.
As for D.A.R.E., the chief said he thinks it made a difference.
"I'm past the debate on it," Chief Sponsler said. "There was something unique about being a D.A.R.E. instructor and being in the schools. It was the first time Rock Island tried it. I was really motivated to make the program work.
"We're not going to save all the kids from drugs, but I guarantee you that some of the kids, though -- maybe just building a rapport with them. To me, that's huge. That's why we have a school resource officer here (in Aledo)."
As a narcotics officer, he had the long hair, beard and dressed-down look of a motorcycle outlaw.
"There's something about the bond narcotics officers have," Chief Sponsler said. "Not only that, but to me, it's such a challenging position. You're out there really doing some crazy things. You're out buying drugs.
"My mom hated me when I was in MEG. I grew up here. I was a clean-cut farm kid. Then I supervised a narcotics unit in Rock Island, too. One thing you learn about narcotics is you're playing a game.
"You've just got to win at the game you're playing."
The game he's playing in now may be somewhat different, but that's OK with him.
"This is a good little town," he said. "I've worked hard to professionalize the department and make some changes. Some of the things you do in a bigger department like Rock Island, those things don't always work in a small town like this.
"I know the town, know the people. What I like about this job is you never know what tomorrow is going to bring. It's a great profession."