Damakant Jayshi

People with some kind of ‘negative’ interaction with police fear and distrust them, according to preliminary takeaways of focus groups discussions shared with the City’s Wausau Policing Task Force on Monday.

Based on suggestions from members of the Task Force, these focus groups were formed in recent weeks by the Wisconsin Institute for Public Policy and Service. According to Chair of WPTF, John Robinson, the takeaways were “preliminary, subject to additional thoughts and potential revision.”

The groups met between Oct. 8 and Oct. 21 to discuss survey results on the perception about and conduct of the Wausau Police Department. One of the reasons for forming the focus groups was to address any under-representation of a community or group.

The results, reviewed by the WPTF in August, while showing an overall broad positive impression of Wausau police also showed lack of trust from those under 30 years of age, minorities, people of color, those with mental health issues and those with prior negative interaction with the police.

Distrust of some police in their interactions with minorities and people of color is a nationwide trend. Whites express more support for the police, and Wausau is no exception.

High-ranking Wausau police officers have pushed back on the negative portrayal, questioning whether the results reflected the prevailing situation in the community or whether they were influenced by nationwide negative perceptions about the police. 

During the focus groups, some members acknowledged their views of the police were based both on personal experience and impressions based on negative national media accounts.

There were six broad focus groups, with some overlap: people under 30 years of age across all race and ethnicities; members of the Hmong community, people with mental health conditions and addictions; people previously arrested or stopped two or more times in the past 12 months; BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and People of Color); and police officers themselves. The groups were further divided into additional subgroups, including two from police: supervisors and non-supervisors. Some incarcerated people also shared their opinion about local policing.

“We are also interviewing some individuals who desired to attend but could not make one of the scheduled focus groups,” Eric Giordano, Executive Director, WIPPS told Wausau Pilot & Review.

Before sharing the preliminary takeaways of the focus groups with the task force on Monday, Giordano emphasized that “the vast majority of Wausau residents who responded to the written survey believe that the Wausau Police Department is doing a good or very good job.” He also agreed with Robinson’s remarks that the takeaways were “preliminary.”

The focus groups were deliberately chosen to hear from people who had somewhat more negative views of the police than the average respondent, said Giordano. 

One striking contrast, the WIPPS director noted, was that while the non-police groups showed an empathetic recognition of how hard policing is and how policing behavior might reflect the uncertainty and possible threat police face when they arrive at a scene, the police groups failed to demonstrate “a reciprocal understanding of resident fears and rational reasons for poor citizen behavior.” Additionally, they seemed to question the purpose of the focus groups.

“They seemed to be offended that they were under scrutiny of the Task Force,” Giordano said, adding that it might be “speculation on my part.”

Even as residents acknowledged that sometimes police need to be authoritative to do their jobs, there were multiple stories in every group about the “police coming to a scene with predetermined ideas about what’s going on, failure to listen, failure to get all sides of the story, unnecessary rudeness, disrespect, and threats.”

Residents also felt that police lacked cultural and language competencies, especially when dealing with the minorities of all hues.

Mental health emerged as a major subject in all the focus groups. There was a widespread recognition that police are not equipped to deal with mental health crises, including among police supervisor and non-supervisor focus groups.  

While non-police participants expressed a strong and nearly universal desire for more police training on mental health issues, police saw a clear delineation between their primary jobs and responsibilities and additional mental health training. Police also preferred more community resources for this purpose and felt other organizations better equipped to handle mental health issues should aid in the response.

During the survey, respondents also recognized that police also needed mental health support because of the stressful nature of their job.

The Task Force will continue its discussion on policing reform. 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.

For the preliminary takeaways, 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.