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Two open-carry backers lead to Germantown police response

William Polster of Sheboygan Falls is seen in one of his YouTube videos about his efforts to educate people on open-carry gun laws.

William Polster of Sheboygan Falls is seen in one of his YouTube videos about his efforts to educate people on open-carry gun laws.

March 17, 2014

A Sheboygan Falls man caused a stir last weekend in Germantown when he openly carried two firearms, prompting residents to call police and the police chief to post an update on the department's Facebook page — which led to another open-carry advocate traveling to Germantown.

William Polster of Sheboygan Falls has spent the last year openly carrying his firearms throughout Wisconsin and recording his interactions with the public and police.

"So many people just call the cops on it," he said Monday. "If you feel threatened, that's one thing. If it's properly carried in a non-threatening manner, it should not be a problem at all."

Several residents in Germantown called police over the weekend when they saw Polster with a handgun holstered on his hip and a long gun slung over his back.

He was walking in the area of Mequon Road and Squire Drive on Saturday, and officers briefly made contact with Polster when he approached a police squad car, according to a post on the Germantown police Facebook page.

Polster declined to give officers his name and walked on the sidewalk to his car. He was recording the incident, and officers activated their cameras to record the incident as well, since it "was apparent that this was some type of open-carry test case that the subject was engaging in," according to a police update.

Polster was not violating any law or local ordinance and was respectful with officers, police said.

Germantown Police Chief Peter Hoell posted updates about the incident on the department's Facebook page questioning the purpose of such actions.

"I understand some of you may disagree with me, but this type of insensitive behavior to cause alarm with so many people just because it is your right to do so is senseless," he wrote, adding that he is an avid hunter and owns various weapons, which he carries concealed while off-duty.

"What is the purpose of slinging a long gun over your shoulder and walking down Mequon Road? The purpose is to test and record a police response, post it on YouTube, to get attention, and to cause fear with those who are not comfortable with guns," Hoell wrote.

The social media postings attracted comments from across the country, Hoell said, and inspired an open-carry advocate, Charles Branstrom, to drive from Appleton to Germantown late Saturday and openly carry two of his firearms.

The comments on the Police Department's Facebook page prompted the chief to take down the initial message.

"There was all kinds of name-calling, bullying and threats and I took it down for a while because people were getting out of control," Hoell said Monday. "I put it back up with a disclaimer to keep things civil. It's a good discussion and a good debate."

Polster said his interactions with police while he openly carries a firearm all have been positive, including Saturday's interaction with Germantown police.

"The actual interaction where they stopped me was appropriate," Polster said. "It was a brief encounter and I was on my way. After that, they sat around and waited until I entered my vehicle. They had two squads there, and it didn't seem like an appropriate use of police resources."

Branstrom also described the Germantown officers as "very professional," though he said officers followed his car after he openly carried in town.

"It felt like we were getting ran out of town, and that's why I think it was kind of inappropriate," he said.

Germantown officers are trained to handle open-carry situations and are fully aware of an individual's rights, the chief said.

"It doesn't come to a shock to us," Hoell said. "But is this really the best way to prove that point and exercise your rights? (Polster) said this is an educational component. Well, if you're scaring and shocking people, I'm not sure how well people will learn from that. It actually might put up walls."

Testing public and law enforcement reaction to openly carried handguns became somewhat common in Wisconsin in 2011, the year a law passed that allowed state residents to get permits to carry concealed weapons.

There was a resurgence of such demonstrations last fall, when Branstrom and another man were handcuffed at gunpoint for walking in downtown Appleton with AR-15 rifles on their shoulders. Polster joined in the ensuing protest at Appleton's farmers market.

The Appleton incident occurred just a few months after Somerset police arrested Mark James Hoffman as he was walking with a holstered handgun and an AR-15 rifle near a school. He was ticketed for loitering and obstructing. His trial is set to begin April 2 in Somerset municipal court.

The demonstrations and recordings of interactions between open-carry holders and the public and police have been effective, said Kevin Michalowski, executive editor of Concealed Carry Magazine, based in West Bend.

"First, I believe the strategy of recording the interactions between citizens and law enforcement is always a good one, and 95% of the time you find out that law enforcement is doing the right thing," he said.

Michalowski, who is a police officer, said he personally views open-carry as a double-edged sword because it can give away a "tactical advantage."

Still, it's up to an individual to determine if open or concealed carry is best for him or her, and police cannot cite someone for disorderly conduct simply because a gun is openly carried, he said.

"I think we always need to remind not only police officers but everyone else that carrying a gun in and of itself is not a problem," he said.

Bruce Vielmetti of the Journal Sentinel staff contributed to this report.

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