By Shereen Siewert

The Wausau Police Department is considering adding a full-time community service officer for downtown, a position that could be funded by a Wausau landlord concerned about homeless residents.

“The Washington Square is experiencing daily issues with people squatting in their facility, panhandling (sometimes aggressively), fighting, and otherwise being disorderly,” a memo from Wausau Police Chief Ben Bliven reads. “We are working collaboratively with Washington Square regarding a full-time, downtown CSO position that would be potentially funded by Washington Square.”

But the fact that Wausau could be at least partially dependent on donations to perform the most basic responsibility of local government is prompting some concern, as it has in some other communities throughout the country when similar partnerships have been proposed.

“I find this type of potential arrangement inappropriate and do not support it,” said Dist. 3 Alder Tom Kilian.

Washington Square, which several years ago was renamed the Third Street Lifestyle Center, is owned by Compass Properties and managed by Mark Craig. Bliven said untreated substance use and mental health disorders are the primary common factors with people in downtown Wausau who are chronically homeless.

Critics object to private sector involvement in policing for a variety of reasons, ranging from potential conflicts of interest to accountability issues.

“When departments rely on private funding, they can often bypass the normal safeguards related to the prioritization of spending and public bidding,” a Des Moines Register editorial board post reads. The editorial, published in 2017, pointed out that “it wasn’t long ago that many police departments prohibited officers from directly soliciting donations for their private fraternal organizations. They didn’t want the officers, in the execution of their official duties, to feel beholden to certain donors. They also didn’t want the contributors to expect a ‘return on their investment’ through favorable treatment.”

Bliven, in an email to Wausau Pilot & Review, said his department has been working with city officials to draft a potential agreement for such a position. The city’s Human Resources Committee will discuss the matter on Monday, but Wausau City Council President Becky McElhaney said she did not believe a privately funded CSO position had been vetted by staff.

“If it were to advance, I have a number of concerns regarding such a position,” McElhaney said. 

A community service officer is employed by the City of Wausau Police Department and would be subject to all city and department policies, procedures and expectations, Bliven said.

“If there would ever become some type of expectation on our staff that would violate policy or public trust, I would not continue with an agreement of this type,” Bliven said. “But I don’t foresee that as an issue.  I am not concerned about any issue with public accountability.”

Bliven said such an agreement could reduce the cost to taxpayers while strengthening the service residents receive from the city, all while mitigating the issues being experienced downtown.

Nationwide, many different types of police services are being performed on contract by private firms. In Amarillo, Texas, local police have authorized a private security company to respond to alarm calls, for example.

More frequently, however, private businesses pay off-duty police for patrols to safeguard their properties.

Many communities contract with private security to supplement local law enforcement, according to the International Association of Chiefs of Police. Private sector companies are often less expensive and focused more on customer service, wrote Sacramento Police Chief David Risley. Some California neighborhoods have hired private security to patrol streets in response to rising crime rates and reductions in police staffing.

The local discussion comes as the Wausau Police Department works to balance the needs of unhoused residents in the downtown with those of local business owners who say their livelihoods are being threatened by squatting, panhandling and violence committed by people who are homeless. The Department is seeking input from the city on creating a community outreach specialist to focus on these issues.

But some residents and city leaders say privately-funded policing is not the answer.

“Obviously, there is already enormous concern in town that the line between municipal government and the private sector has been way too blurry for years,” Kilian said. “The appearance that local police personnel can be rented as a private security apparatus for business entities and developers would only heighten this concern that there is not sufficient daylight between the public and private sectors in Wausau.”