Damakant Jayshi

As a third step in its goal of finalizing recommendations for future policy, the Wausau Policing Task Force on Monday tentatively finalized six focus groups based on a preliminary analysis of the survey results.

The focus groups are divided into people under 30 years of age across all race and ethnicities, members of the Hmong community, people with mental health conditions, police, people previously arrested or stopped two or more times, and BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and People of Color).

The last focus group was approved after a WPTF member, Pat Peckham, suggested creating a focus group comprising Black members of the community. Upon Chair John Robinson’s suggestion, the task force expanded to include BIPOC.

On Aug. 23, April Bleske-Rechek, Professor of Psychology at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire and Research Partner for the Wisconsin Institute for Public Policy and Service suggested the first five groups as a starting point for discussion. She analyzed survey results on behalf of WIPPS, the organization helping the committee in the effort.

Task force members spent considerable time discussing ways, including offering monetary incentives to engage younger population and under-represented demographics who had submitted the survey to participate in focus groups. That suggestion was made by task force member Michael Klemp-North.

The focus groups, once formed, will discuss survey results and make suggestions on how to improve policing in Wausau. They will also address questions and themes that WIPPS will suggest.

The City Council formed the task force under the recommendation of Wausau Mayor Katie Rosenberg in June 2020, at the height of the Black Lives Matter movement and associated protests nationwide. Protests erupted in the wake of George Floyd’s death in the hands of police in Minneapolis last year. A Minnesota judge sentenced former police officer, Derek Chauvin, for 22 and half years in Floyd’s murder. The policing reform focuses exclusively on Wausau Police Department, rather than on agencies in surrounding communities.

Race and policing in America gained nationwide attention in the wake of Floyd’s death, with majorities of both black and White Americans saying police treat black people less fairly.

Speaking with Wausau Pilot & Review, Bleske-Rechek said it was more important to identify subset of groups, like within those under 30 or those who have arrest history, to further probe concerns expressed through the survey data and open-ended questions. “That way, we can try and find out why there is more mistrust of police among the younger population,” she said.

Respondents 30 and below, across demographics, and minorities were more distrustful of police.

She pointed out several positive aspects from the surveys that deserved the community’s attention.

“There is consensus pretty much in the entire sample that the police department should recruit people of good moral character,” Bleske-Rechek said. “It is not divisive everywhere.”

Task force member Michael Loy said he recognized that communities are struggling with the tension of the America that is with the America it’s becoming, pointing to data that shows those 30 and younger are 19 percent less white.

“I think we have to think about the context of policing in different generations and understanding these communities, especially those underrepresented communities that are becoming more prominent in our country,” Loy said. “We need to be able to engage all all facets… there are some clear gaps across the survey.”

According to the survey results (page 19), people across demographics supported the idea of recruiting morally upright people as police officers. There was also recognition that policing is a stressful job and police officers need mental health support.

A significant majority of respondents also wanted to treat those with mental health conditions as people in need, on a case-by-case basis.

As the first step in the process, the WPTF has already held a series of public listening sessions to gather public feedback on policing in the City of Wausau. The focus groups will follow. As a final step, the Wausau Policing Task Force plans to hold a public hearing and make final recommendations on police reform to the mayor and City Council.

The Wausau Policing Community Survey asked questions about police’s frequency of use of force, their training, and their overall performance, among others. Previously, the task force also reviewed The President’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing of 2015, A Blueprint for Change 2020: Opportunities to Evolve Policing in Wisconsin by Wisconsin Professional Police Association (WPPA) and the Speaker’s Task Force on Racial Disparities.

For the results and the open-ended questions, click here and go to page 4.

Damakant Jayshi is a reporter for Wausau Pilot & Review. He is also a corps member with Report for America, an initiative of GroundTruth Project that places journalists into local newsrooms. Reach him at damakant@wausaupilotandreview.com.