Kenosha Police Officer Tyler Cochran was patroling on the lakefront on an unseasonably warm day in April 2010 when he noticed a group of kids jumping from the North Pier.
“My plan was to go down there and tell them to stop,” remembered Cochran, who at that time was also working at McKinley Middle School.
Just after noticing the kids on the pier across the harbor, he said, police received a 911 call about a water emergency at the North Pier. Cochran raced to the scene.
As he ran down the pier, he saw the kids at the scene he knew from McKinley.
“They were yelling ‘Officer Tyler save her! Officer Tyler save her,” Cochran said.
He looked into the choppy waves and saw no sign of the girl.
“I knew there was nothing I could do,” he said. “About an hour later, (the fire department) pulled her body out of the water.”
Cochran said the girl who died was also a student he knew from the school. He was the one who told her friends and family she had died.
Nine years later, he said, the girl’s death still affects him.
“Becoming a police officer, I prepared myself for everything in this job, but you can’t prepare yourself for it being someone that you know,” he said.
Cochran is now a safety officer with the Kenosha Police Department — better known as Officer Friendly to school kids. When he was approached last year about being part of the Safety Around Water Coalition organized by the Kenosha YMCA, he jumped at the chance.
A push for safety
Saturday was the culmination of a week of water safety events organized by the coalition in partnership with the city, Kenosha Unified School District and the local police and fire departments.
The week included presentations about water safety by David Benjamin from the Great Lakes Surf Rescue Project at Unified high schools and middle schools. A water safety video created by Cochran was also shown at all district middle and high schools.
On Saturday, the coalition held a water safety event from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. at the Kenosha Harbor, including safety demonstrations, a presentation by the Great Lakes Surf Rescue Project and life jacket giveaways.
The week of education programs was part of a larger series of initiatives to improve safety at the lakefront, including larger warning signs, “throw bags” for police squad cars and the installation of life ring kiosks at areas where there are dangerous currents, including near the mouth of the Pike River and at the North Pier.
Ald. David Bogdala said the push to improve safety actually began last spring, and said he drafted the resolution to purchase life ring kiosks for the pier.
There had been discussions about improving safety for years, but there was pushback from city officials who worried that life rings would be stolen and damaged.
Even when the Kenosha Sportfishing and Conservation Association had donated a kiosk several years ago, the city declined to install it.
At the same time the aldermen were discussing the kiosks last spring, Beth Volbrecht, aquatic and sports director at the YMCA, said the Y began organizing the safety coalition.
The educational program aims to let kids know the dangers of currents on the lake, and to teach life-saving strategies for the water.
Ironically, as the coalition began meeting in the hope of pushing for improved safety, Kenosha entered what became a deadly summer on the water.
Five people died in drownings in the county in 2018, including an 18-year-old high school student who died after jumping from North Pier with friends and a father who drowned trying to save his daughter from a rip current off the beach where the Pike River flows into Lake Michigan.
Bogdala said after what has been a lengthy process, the city has finally received approval from the Army Corps of Engineers to install the last of the kiosks — three planned for the North Pier — and he hopes they are in place by the end of the month.
“This has been a long time coming,” Bogdala said. “I can tell you right now it’s going to save someone’s life — probably this summer. And that is going to make it all worth it.”