Damakant Jayshi

With recommendations on policing practices nearly finalized, the Wausau Policing Task Force on Monday set a tentative timeline to release their final report to the public in March.

Top priorities are likely to include how police respond to a mental health crisis situation, how officers are caring for their own mental health, language competencies and culture.

The WPTF will meet again on Feb. 16 to rank their recommendations in terms of priority and decide on the final version of the group’s report. One week prior, Mayor Katie Rosenberg is expected to receive a copy of the report for her review. Recommendations will be discussed with the Wausau Police Department, City Council’s Police and Fire Commission, Public Health and Safety Committee and the council.

Prioritizing recommendations was part of Tuesday’s agenda, but Chair John Robinson suggested deferring action in the absence of some members.

During the meeting, Rosenberg went over the major aspects of the report. She has been working on the final version with Robinson with input from other members of the Task Force offered during recent meetings.

“We felt strongly about making sure that the shared that the majority of the feedback [the police department] received was positive and that we have some really great policies already in effect,” Rosenberg said, echoing the wishes of the task force.

Although minorities and people of color expressed some fear and distrust in survey results and discussions on policing practices, overall the Wausau Police Department received positive reviews from about 85% of the community. The task force commissioned the Wisconsin Institute for Public Policy and Service to conduct a community survey and organize focus groups last year.

During her rundown of the report, Rosenberg also explained why the City Council took the initiative on reviewing policing policies and practices and making recommendations to improve them.

“We wanted to make sure we were responding to our community’s questions about policing policies but we didn’t want to be reactive,” she said, adding that many cities rushed to make changes two years ago.

Rosenberg was referring to protests in many cities across the country that responded to the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis in 2020. Protests were held in Wausau, too. Upon her initiative, the City Council formed WPTF in August 2020.

The language of a key recommendation related to mental health training of police officers was revised during Tuesday’s meeting. The Task Force has recommended that the City Council ensure that police officers do not have to pay for mental health-related counseling they seek and receive. Police Chief Benjamin Bliven said that although the police department has an employee assistance program, some officers ended up paying some of the costs themselves.

Robinson also sought his colleagues’ suggestion on how best to word a resolution to the Legislature that seeks support in streamlining and clarifying the process for officers who are often waiting for hours at mental health centers to transition people from police custody who need assistance. Members discussed whether to give a larger responsibility to mental health crisis professionals or leave the roles open ended.

The recommendation language now reads: “Concerns have been expressed over the amount of time the officers spend waiting for the disposition of commitments in crisis services/cases; therefore, we request that the legislature clarify and address law enforcement’s role in commitments and crisis services.” 

But while Bliven welcomed the initiative to streamline the process, he expressed some doubt over its outcome.

[Click here for the identified recommendations, and go to page 4. To read the survey and focus groups findings, click here. For community survey results, go to page 3; for focus groups, go to Page 41.]

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.