Damakant Jayshi

Increasing cultural competencies and mental health training for officers dominated the nearly two-hour-long discussion of the Wausau Policing Task Force on Tuesday, with the body approving two motions and deferring decisions on a few other topics.

The task force recommended that the Wausau City Council enhance mental health training for police officers and extend mental health benefits to the entire Wausau Police Department. Both motions were suggested by task force member Michael Loy.

The task force deferred making any formal recommendation on training for police officers on cultural competencies, which aims to better equip the officers in their dealings with people of color. Task force member and chair of Police and Fire Commission, William Harris, pointed out the importance of increasing cultural awareness for the police department, saying some perceptions on both sides have been likely driven by lack of understanding of history, background and culture. He strongly recommended including cultural competency in the task force report.

The group will look into challenges in communications with the community and agreed to come back with recommendations on these topics at their next meeting, set for Jan. 10.

Some WPTF members and the organization they engaged to help in getting community’s feedback, the Wisconsin Institute for Public Policy and Service (WIPPS), emphasized that the police did receive positive reviews from about 85% of the community.

However, they also discussed what was needed to improve local policing based on feedback from the community.

Increasing police officers’ language and cultural competencies, along with mental health training and the mental well-being of officers, were suggestions from participants of the community policing survey in June and the focus groups and individual interviews in October, both conducted by WIPPS and its research partners. Mental health was a common worry shared by some residents and police officers. Members of both groups said they felt that mental health conditions needed to be addressed.

Many participants in the focus groups mentioned their approval of the CART (Crisis Assessment Response Team) program and suggested sending more trained teams to scenes involving people experiencing mental health crises. “Several participants emphasized the importance of expanding the CART program to ensure it is available at all times,” the focus group report said.

CART is a group comprising members from the Marathon County Sheriff’s Department, the Wausau Police Department and North Central Health Care who respond to crisis situations in Marathon County

The Wausau 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. The survey and focus groups are part of ongoing policing reform efforts. They were preceded by listening sessions held by the task force in February this year.

Tuesday’s meeting began with overviews of the findings of the survey and the focus groups.

Chair of WPTF, John Robinson said the findings are “near final” but some more work was needed before the task force presented their final report with recommendations. Near the end of the meeting, Robinson also reminded task force members of their role and responsibilities and their limitations as to what they could recommend to the City Council.

Mayor Rosenberg said that the while the WPTF could not make any policy recommendations for the City Council to enact, the council will take their recommendations seriously.

Robinson outlined next steps for the task force, saying they needed to advance concepts to prepare their report by Jan. 10 and approve it in their Jan. 31 meeting. The report would then be presented to the City of Wausau’s Public Safety Committee and ultimately to the City Council and the Police and Fire Commission. The task force will also hold a public hearing on their findings as final step before submitting its report, the chair added.

WIPPS Executive Director Eric Giordano and April Bleske-Rechek, Professor of Psychology at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire and Research Partner for WIPPS, shared their evaluations of the findings of the June survey and the October focus group discussions and some one-on-one interviews with people who wanted to be part of the focus groups but could not.

The focus groups reinforced what the survey had found: negative perceptions about the police in some who have had interactions with officers, younger residents, people of color, those with mental health conditions and non-heterosexual residents.

But WIPPS cautioned readers to view the findings with some caveats. It said the findings are based on perceptions of focus group participants, that the findings are from sub-groups who have more negative feelings towards police, and emphasized that the results are not reflective of the broader community.

Giordano also clarified that WIPPS was not endorsing recommendations in the focus group report – on increasing language and cultural competencies of the police – that were made by survey and focus group participants. But the WIPPS director suggested addressing gaps in perceptions about police officers, adding that some are unfounded. He cited an example of diversity in police department hiring – as pointed put by respondents in the survey – noting the efforts by the Wausau Police Department have been made, but that effort did not seem to reach the community.

Both Giordano and Bleske-Rechek pointed out that even the people who held negative views about the police also had positive things to say. But the professor also cautioned task force members not to dismiss the concerns expressed by sections of the community about police behavior and action entirely. “It’s also wrong to think these views don’t matter at all,” she said.

The findings pointed out that police officers and their supervisors are concerned by charges of bias against them, and some wondered if those perceptions are due to the influence of national media and social media trends.

Citing research, Bleske-Rechek cautioned against putting too much emphasis on diversity training and “implicit bias,” terming it a “murky subject.”

Task force member Pat Peckam said he was struck by the finding in the report that police fairly consistently claimed they arrived at a scene without a bias but “if it (situation) goes to hell,” it was always the residents’ fault.

Wausau Police Chief Benjamin Bliven took exception to the discussion about negative perceptions of police despite approval of their work by the majority in the community. He said that no one should be surprised by how frustrated police officers are after the scrutiny they have been under over the last 18 months. 

[Click here for the WPTF findings. For community survey results, go to page 3; for focus groups, go to Page 41.]