Wausau Police Chief Ben Bliven

Damakant Jayshi

After strong objections by the police department, the Wausau Policing Task Force on Thursday voted to make an explicit conclusion that systemic racism does not exist in policing in the city.

Instead, the Task Force report will say that the body encourages the police department to “continue to be proactive in avoiding systemic racism.”

During the meeting, the Wausau Policing Task Force chair John Robinson said he convened Thursday’s meeting, not originally planned, to discuss significant concerns he faced from police officers during his presentation to two separate groups at the Wausau Police Department. Robinson said he wanted his colleagues on the Task Force to weigh in on those concerns after the officers objected to section on tasks/objectives for the WPD: No. 4 (examining systemic racism and its impact on the community) and No. 8 (participate in community dialogue about policing, human service needs, and systemic racism.) 

One concern, according to the WPTF chair, related to “silence” of the Task Force in explicitly saying systemic racism did not exist. 

Some members of the Task Force and Mayor Katie Rosenberg pointed out that they did not find systemic racism implied in actions by the Wausau Police Department, though they sought to acknowledge that systemic racism exists throughout the criminal justice system as a whole. But those efforts failed to move Police Chief Ben Bliven, who strongly objected to any such acknowledgment.

“Frankly, I don’t understand why you would need to add all these caveats,” Bliven said. “You guys didn’t do any research into systemic racism as it pertains to the justice system as a whole, to Marathon County court system or things like that. Your role was to focus on the police department in the City of Wausau.”

Robinson rebutted him by saying that the Task Force did look beyond the police department, by inviting representatives from the District Attorney’s office, Marathon County Sheriff’s Department and the county jail system. But, “I agree with you in principle that we didn’t look at the society” as whole as it was not their task, Robinson said. The task was to see how systemic racism impacted the city and the police department. 

“I do get a little bit concerned when we start, trying to bring, we are here, we were created because of the concerns of systemic racism, the body by its nature,” Robinson reminded. “What we are trying to do is focus on now and where we are going directionally.”

One of the concerns of the Task Force was lack of data in some cases. The group would recommend gathering more data for the future.

Bliven also complained that the police department was subjected to intense scrutiny “for the past 18 months” that left a “sour taste” for police officers.

“I think you owe it to the Wausau Police Department to make a simple strong statement without any caveats, without having to acknowledge what is going on outside the borders of Wausau,” Bliven said.

He noted that 86% of the community surveyed said they approved of the work of the police department. While the majority of the people surveyed did have a positive view of the department, some residents younger than 30, minorities, people of color, people with mental health issues, non-heterosexual residents, non-homeowners and those with prior negative interactions with the police expressed some fear and suspicion of Wausau police

A number of police officer-involved shootings and use of force across the country has led to intense, and polarizing, discussion in policing practices and the existence of systemic racism in the criminal justice system. A database on police shooting maintained by The Washington Post shows that Black Americans are killed at a much higher rate than white Americans.

Mayor Rosenberg, while summarizing the final report of the Task Force, also repeated what she had said before: that the objective was to be responsive, and not reactive. The Task Force launched in September 2020, a month after it was formed by the City Council. Rosenberg took the initiative to form the Task Force in August 2020 in the wake of protests across the U.S. related to the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis.

Michael Klemp-North, a Task Force member, said he was struggling to understand as to why the Task Force would mention “systemic racism” in its report but fail to acknowledge the existence of systemic racism in the criminal justice system.

The top recommendations of the Task Force report are the expansion of crisis response teams and homeless outreach. An Employee Assistance Program (EAP) that focuses on providing free mental health support to police officers, a plan for North Central Health Care to pursue strategies for Community Based Case Management Services, and holding dialogues with minority groups in the community rounded up the top five priorities.

Michael Loy, a member of the Task Force, acknowledged that systemic racism has had an impact on policing across the country, but suggested the report should be unequivocal in stating that the group and the community survey did not find systemic racism in the policies, practice and culture of the department.

But another member, William Harris, proposed an amendment saying that the Task Force should acknowledge that systemic racism does occur at other places while taking care to point out that it “doesn’t happen here (Wausau),” and to examine if there are any gaps that need to be addressed in the city. The amended version of the motion acknowledges that the Task Force found no evidence of systemic racism, but also recommended that the police department continue to be proactive moving forward.

The group is nearing the end of its tenure and is in the midst of sharing its report with the City of Wausau’s stakeholders. It has already shared the report with the Police and Fire Commission (the statutory body governing the police department), in addition to the two groups of officers at the Wausau Police Department. It is scheduled to share its findings with the City’s Public Health and Safety Committee on Apr. 18, the City Council on Apr. 26, and will hold a public hearing at 6.30 p.m. on May 18. Its last meeting will be on May 23 where it will wrap, with an action plan recommendation to various bodies in the City and Marathon County.

[Click here for a snapshot of the recommendations, and go to page 22. 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.]