Damakant Jayshi

Two Wausau women say the Wausau Police and Fire Commission violated due process – and their civil rights – after they filed official complaints over a police investigation into the death of a young child.

Alyssa Froom and Julie Leist each filed complaints raising questions about the way Wausau Police investigated the 2020 death of 7-year-old Eliana Froom, Alyssa Froom’s daughter and the step granddaughter of Leist. Eliana Froom died Oct. 7, 2020, roughly two weeks after she collapsed at a Wausau home where she was staying with her father. Though a medical examiner’s report shows Eliana died of natural causes, her mother and Leist dispute that finding and alleged the girl was a victim of neglect at the hands of her father. Both women filed complaints in December with the Police and Fire Commission alleging a shoddy and questionable investigation by six police officers and Wausau Police Chief Ben Bliven.

On Feb. 21, the Commission dismissed Froom’s complaint against Bliven but ordered an investigation by an outside law enforcement agency to investigate other officers named in the complaint. The group also asked Bliven to select the outside agency to conduct the probe, a directive that was made before the 30-day window in which Froom could appeal the decision.

Four days later, the group made a similar decision on Leist’s complaint, which was filed together with Froom’s, on Dec. 21, 2021.

But both Froom and Leist have objected to PFC’s handling of their complaint and termed it a violation of the due process.

Froom filed an appeal against PFC’s ruling two days later; Leist followed suit on March 16. Both said they have provided the PFC with additional and supporting materials to support their claim. Both women were offered the chance to speak during a March 28 meeting – an offer that was withdrawn abruptly on March 23.

“We are aware that at the last Police & Fire Commission meeting it was stated that the Complainant will have time to make comments at the next meeting,” read a Mar. 23 email from Amy Lund, who works in the WPD records department and coordinates the Commission’s meetings. “However, the outside agency is not done with the investigation regarding your complaint. Therefore, the Commissioners will not listen to statements regarding the complaint on Monday morning as previously noted.”

That, both women say, is a violation of their civil rights.

Conflicting reports, lingering questions

The medical examiner has already ruled Eliana’s death as natural, a finding that Froom challenges. She says there is evidence to dispute the medical examiner’s report.

“The things that were stated in the report about me from other people are not accurate and there is evidence to prove that,” Froom said.

But the police documents related to the investigation, obtained by Wausau Pilot & Review, cast doubt on Froom’s account including her characterization of events and perceived motives of other people named in the police report. The report accuses Froom of experiencing “some confusion surrounding the details” about how her daughter died. At another point, the report alleges Froom was “slightly inaccurate and/or misleading” regarding her interpretation of the medical records of her daughter.

In light of the PFC’s decision to withdraw their offer to allow the women to speak at the upcoming meeting, Froom said she believes the police chief and his representative should also be barred from speaking.

“It is only fair then that no one speaks,” she said.

Samuel C. Hall, the independent counsel assisting the Commission, issued a statement to Wausau Pilot & Review.

“As Chairman Harris has already indicated, once the investigation has been completed, but before the PFC takes final action on the complaints, the complainants will be provided the opportunity to address the members of the PFC regarding their allegations,” Hall said.

Both women are also unhappy that Bliven was allowed to choose the outside investigative agency involved in reviewing the complaints, which are a combined 187 pages long. The Commission has declined to share either complaint, saying that doing so would compromise their investigation.

“On March 17…I sent my email to several people laying out my strong concern regarding the PFC’s decision to allow Chief Bliven to find an outside law enforcement agency to investigate my (our) complaint(s) and giving him the ability to come to the next meeting on Monday March 28, 2022 and provide the PFC with an ‘update or a final report’,” Leist told Wausau Pilot & Review.

Leist added that the Mar. 23 email canceling their promised public statements in front of PFC members did not mention “our appeals and when they will be heard. Leist says she is being “silenced and not allowed to speak. Why is that? Because we will say that it is a violation of our civil rights what they have done by allowing Chief Bliven to find someone in favor of him and his police officers.”

Chair of the PFC, William Harris referred Wausau Pilot & Review’s questions to Hall who, through his statement, said that the PFC takes all citizens’ complaints “very seriously” and asked for patience while the “investigation is conducted over the next several weeks.”

“In Wausau and elsewhere throughout Wisconsin, citizen complaints against police officers are  investigated by the police chief and returned to the PFC for action,” Hall said. “However, with these particular citizen complaints, the PFC took the unprecedented step of directing that an outside law enforcement agency conduct the internal investigation.”

On Wednesday, Hall told Wausau Pilot & Review that “in light of the fact that these complaints are still pending in front of the PFC and are not yet a matter of public record, we do not believe that is appropriate to comment directly on the complaints. However, I believe that there may be some confusion as to what has occurred thus far and what is yet to occur, which I would like to address.”

Hall went on to describe what happened at the February meetings of the PFC when the group dismissed the complaint against Bliven, directed an investigation of the officers involved and asked him to choose an outside investigating agency. As per the PFC manual, it is the police chief who conducts investigations of complaints against subordinate officers, Hall said. The PFC referred to that policy in its rulings on Feb. 21 and Feb. 25.

Hall added that if the PFC believed that additional examination was warranted, the PFC “continues to have the ability to pursue further investigation.”

Neither Hall nor Harris responded to the question raised by Froom and Leist: Why would the police chief be allowed to have a say in the investigation even before deciding on the merit of their appeal against PFC decision to dismiss the complaint?

“I don’t know how this can proceed since I have appealed their decision to dismiss the complaint the police chief,” Froom told Wausau Pilot & Review. “He (Bliven) can easily choose an agency that is favorable to him and other officers. The investigation wouldn’t be free of bias or impartial based on all the supporting evidence I turned in.”

Wausau Pilot & Review reached out to Bliven but received an auto reply indicating he is away until March 28, the day of the next PFC meeting.

“To reiterate, the complaints against the Chief of Police we dismissed and the Chief is not responsible for any investigation in this matter – he was directed by the PFC to refer the investigation of other officers to an outside agency and that agency’s investigative findings will eventually be provided directly to the PFC,” Hall said. “The PFC is expecting an update at the March 28th meeting; however, it is anticipated that an outside investigation in this matter is likely to take some time and will very likely not be concluded by the March meeting.”

Froom said the PFC, which oversees the Wausau Police Department, must ensure the police follow proper procedures and policies and review how the investigation of her daughter was conducted. “I reviewed the Wausau Police Department Policy Manual and referenced policy the numbers that are in violation in my complaint,” she said.

“All I want is justice for my daughter,” Froom said. “She deserves it. There needs to be accountability. I deserve the truth, to know what happened to my daughter. She didn’t deserve to die. She shouldn’t have died.”