The Wausau Police and Fire Commission drew charges of due process violations again on Monday from the two women who have strongly objected to the body’s handling of the complaint against Wausau Police Department’s chief and six other police officers.
PFC members listened as Wausau Police Chief Benjamin Bliven gave an update on the commission’s directives, issued Feb. 21 and Feb. 25, to engage an outside law enforcement agency to investigate officers from the department over complaints by Alyssa Froom and Julie Leist surrounding the department’s investigation into the 2020 death of Froom’s 7-year-old daughter, Eliana Froom.
During his briefing, Bliven told the Commission the chief of the outside agency, in the Fox Valley, would conduct a review in April and May with results expected in June. Bliven named neither the agency nor the chief spearheading the investigation.
Eliana 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 allege the girl was a victim of neglect at the hands of her father.
Both women filed complaints in December with the PFC alleging a shoddy and questionable investigation by the officers involved. The complaints also name 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 probe the actions by 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. They took a similar decision on Leist’s complaint on Feb. 25.
Froom promptly filed an appeal two days later, and Leist followed suit on March 16, disagreeing with the Commission’s decision.
On Monday, the PFC did not address the women’s appeals and did not allow them to speak. Instead, they attended to other items listed on the agenda for the meeting.
Froom said she is worried about the manner in which PFC is conducting its investigation. “I want to know the statute of limitation on my appeal,” she said.
“If the Commission dismisses my appeal against their decision too, I want to have enough time to prepare and file an appeal at the Circuit Court if I decide to do it. This is my right,” Froom told Wausau Pilot & Review after the commission’s meeting.
Froom and Leist have already alleged violations of their civil rights and due process by the Police and Fire Commission.
Samuel C. Hall, the independent counsel assisting the PFC, issued the following statement: “The Police and Fire Commission has already provided comment on this matter through its attorney. While we appreciate the Wausau Pilot and Review asking for additional comment, we will not be providing further statements at this time in order to preserve the integrity of the ongoing investigation.”
Though Froom stopped short of accusing the PFC of bias, she made her views clear about Monday’s proceedings.
“By not allowing us to speak and by not making reference to our appeal, the PFC is making a statement,” Froom said. She again questioned the “fairness and impartiality” of the investigation conducted by an outside agency selected by Bliven “when the complaint against hasn’t run its due course.”
She also said the PFC should have addressed the “tone” of the letter sent by Amy Lund to them on behalf of the PFC on Mar. 23. She termed the letter “hostile.”
“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,” wrote 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.”
Leist, too, objected to the proceedings.
“Our civil and due process rights (were) violated when Bliven stood at the podium and stated he began looking for an outside law enforcement agency to look into our complaint,” Leist, who is stepmother of the young girl’s father, told Wausau Pilot & Review.
During his briefing, Bliven said he approached the agency in the Fox Valley after Wisconsin’s Division of Criminal Investigation (DCI) and Marathon County Sheriff’s Department declined his request to review WPD’s investigation of Eliana’s death.
Bliven also said if the complainants had any additional information for the outside agency chief, they should offer it through the PFC president, William Harris, or attorney Sam Hall, but emphasized that no new information was needed for the review.
“My understanding of this review is that the chief would be doing a review of the criminal investigation to determine if any of our policies or procedures were violated,” Bliven said. “So that’s simply a review of the materials. I don’t believe it would be helpful to have any interjections into that review itself.”
Both Froom and Leist took exception to Bliven’s suggestion and pointed to what they deemed Bliven’s conflict of interest.
“I am still evaluating what Bliven meant by saying no additional information should be considered,” Froom said. She also pointed out that Bliven should not have approached the Sheriff’s Department or the DCI “since he knew that I had already done so, and those agencies declined.”
Leist also objected to Bliven approaching the Marathon County Sheriff’s Department “even though he knew that would be a conflict of interest for multiple reasons – to which he is fully aware of.”
Bliven disputed that assessment.
He said after the PFC directed him to seek an outside law enforcement agency, he reached out to the “foremost expert on death investigation” in the State of Wisconsin, the Division of Criminal Investigation, he told Wausau Pilot & Review. Earlier, during the briefing at the PFC, the police chief said the DCI usually investigates an officer-involved shooting or death, and not a complaint of this nature.
As for approaching the Sheriff’s Department, Bliven said he “called them because they are professional and I know they would base their assessment of the complaint on their knowledge of police procedure and the law – our strong professional relationship would not taint their decision or report to the PFC.” He added: “However, that all became a moot point when the attorney for the PFC (Hall) indicated his recommendation would be to seek a different agency.”
If the agency needs any additional information, Bliven said, they can ask for any additional material, adding that either Harris or Hall could make the determination as to what should be provided.
Bliven, responding to the propriety of making a decision in the matter despite a pending appeal, pointed to the established procedures for such issues.
“I receive my direction on this from the PFC, so the answer is pretty straight forward,” Bliven said. “The PFC has given me direction to seek an outside law enforcement agency to investigate this complaint, so I followed that direction.”
The next meeting of the commission is in late April.