BY PETER CAMERON, THE BADGER PROJECT

After the death of George Floyd, a black man, at the hands of a white Minneapolis police officer on Memorial Day, calls to defund, demilitarize, reform and even abolish the police have grown louder across the country.

“All of us were saddened about the fact that some of our own had failed so dramatically and so miserably,” Marathon County Sheriff Scott Parks said. 

“At the same time to me, it doesn’t justify what’s taking place after the fact,” Parks said, referring to the riots in American cities. “I work in the criminal justice system, I trust that system, and if I didn’t that trust that system to work for us, then I wouldn’t be in it anymore.”

Wausau Police Chief Benjamin Bliven called Floyd’s death “reprehensible.”

Both men said their departments do not permit the knee to the neck tactic that killed Floyd, nor the strangleholds and chokeholds that have led to other deaths.

“We are a character-based, mission-focused police department,” Bliven said.

And Wisconsin is one of a few states to require an outside investigation regarding deaths involving a police officer.

The Badger Project, a nonpartisan journalism nonprofit in Wisconsin, took a look at how local policing fares compared to national criticism.

COMPLAINTS

Critics say many police union contracts protect bad officers, preventing the release of complaints and blocking chiefs from firing them.

The Badger Project found no language in the union contracts for Wausau Police, Everest Metro Police, Rothschild Police or the officers of the Marathon County Sheriff’s Department that would prevent the release of complaints against officers to the public.

Wisconsin’s Public Records Law requires agencies to keep documents, usually for at least seven years, said Bill Lueders, president of the Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council.

The Wausau Police Department investigates all complaints against its officers, Bliven said. The Marathon County Sheriff’s Office saves complaints in each employee’s personnel file, Parks said.

Also per state law, the final decision on hiring and firing police at a city level is made by a five-person commission appointed by the mayor.

However, it is harder to fire a police officer in Wisconsin compared to most other employees.

Former Gov. Scott Walker’s labor-busting Act 10 lowered the requirements for termination, making it “more employer friendly,” said Frank Mattel, the employee resources director for Marathon County, but preserved the higher bar for police and fire unions.

Prior to Act 10, labor unions had a “just cause” standard that employers had to meet, which took more time and was a more drawn out process, Mattel added.

But Act 10 did have a local impact that played out in March 2013. After a citizen review reported the Marathon County Jail needed a massive overhaul in the wake of an attack on a female corrections officer, the jail administrator resigned and the county enacted major reforms. Act 10 had weakened union protections for correctional officers, Parks said, so there was no union to resist the changes.

Marathon County Sheriff Scott Parks speaks at a September 2017 news conference. Wausau Pilot & Review file photo

Another complaint nationally is that bad cops who get fired can get a job at another department. The Wisconsin Department of Justice has a database it requires police departments to update when an officer is fired or resigns due to an investigation.

Since its inception in 2017, at least 579 officers have been flagged, said Steven Wagner, director of the Training & Standards Bureau at the Wisconsin Department of Justice

But departments are not mandated to use the database to background check an officer before hiring, Wagner said.

FUNDING

Critics also say police budgets are huge compared to other government services, and accuse politically-powerful police unions of preventing any cuts.

After debt service, the largest item on the city of Wausau 2020 budget is the police department at about $10 million.

By comparison, the city budgeted about $1.4 million for community development.

“We need the officers we have to respond to the calls that we have,” Bliven said.

He noted the Wausau Police Department employs two mental health professionals that can attend calls with officers, and one therapist that works with victims.

“We do recognize we aren’t the experts in all areas,” Bliven said.

In Marathon County, which has a total of about 700 full-time equivalent employees, the Sheriff’s Office has by far the most, with about 200 full-time equivalent positions. The next largest is the Social Services Department with about 120 full-time equivalent positions.

Regarding calls to “defund the police, Parks said “I don’t see that as being the answer to any of this.”

He noted his department partners with mental health professionals from North Central Health Care in Wausau to create a crisis response team that answers calls of that nature.

MILITARIZATION

Another criticism of American police is that they have become less Mayberry and more military. Images of officers in riot gear, body armor and shields have been prevalent during the protests and riots after Floyd’s death.

In 2011, Marathon County purchased a Lenco Bearcat, an armored vehicle for just under $250,000, Parks said. It was used in a shootout in 2017 that saw one local police officer shot and killed after three other civilians had already been murdered. The suspect was firing at responding officers and the vehicle was used to “make contact” with him, Parks said, taking fire and likely saving the driver’s life. Officers eventually shot and apprehended the suspect, who later died, Parks said.

Local departments have begun to rely on armored vehicles like this BearCat, featured in this 2018 stock photo, for protection during shooting incidents.

A second incident, the sheriff recalled, saw a suspect shoot and hit the passenger-side windshield, which held, again likely saving the life of the officer sitting there.

“That BearCat has paid off dividends,” Parks said.

The Marathon County Sheriff’s Office deploys the vehicle about once a month, Parks estimated, sometimes having it ready but out of sight in case it’s needed.

In 2014, an attorney and his 75-year-old client publicly criticized the office after it arrived at the client’s house with 24 armed officers and the armored vehicle over a property dispute. The man owed an $80,000 judgement to the small town of Stettin in Marathon County.

The man had a history of being armed or suggesting he was armed, Parks said, and the vehicle was placed in between the man’s home and the bank employees who were present to tell officers what property to repossess. The man eventually agreed to pay the judgement, the sheriff said.

The Wausau Police Department and Marathon County Sheriff’s Office have patrol rifles, tactical helmets, and things like shields and heavier body armor, which can be brought out when needed, but aren’t used for regular policing.

“We hire our police officers to do dangerous things, and we owe it to them to make them as safe as possible,” Bliven said.

A standoff in Wausau on March 14, 2018. Photos courtesy of Then & Now Photography

PEOPLE OF COLOR

Perhaps the loudest criticism of American police is that they target black folks and other people of color.

In 2016, Wausau Police were accused of racial profiling by a black man and local clergy. In his mugshot, the man’s face was visibly swollen after his arrest. Officers said he and another man appeared to be near fighting outside a bar late at night, leading to the confrontation. Police released a video and audio recording in which the man gave a false name to officers before his arrest, said he resisted, and the chief at the time said officers had acted appropriately.

Of Wausau’s 76 current police officers, seven are minorities, including five Hmong officers, Bliven said.

The Marathon County Sheriff’s Department employs 90 armed officers, a small percentage of whom are Asian-American, African-American or Hipspanic, Parks said.

But minority representation within the force is just one piece of good relationships with minority communities, Bliven said.

Wausau Police Chief Ben Bliven gives a speech during a class at the FBI headquarters in Quantico, Virginia. Contributed photo

Bliven said he invites and meets with minority leaders in the community to hear their concerns and to share the department’s tactics and philosophy.

“One of the key factors in law enforcement is, does your community trust you? Do they see you as a legitimate government organization who carries out their authority and responsibilities in a professional and fair way,” Bliven said. “That work is never going to be finished and never going to be completed. It’s a continuous process.”

The Badger Project is a nonpartisan, citizen-supported journalism nonprofit in Wisconsin. Cameron is managing editor. He can be reached at pcameron@thebadgerproject.org.