Wausau’s Human Resources Committee on Monday approved a new position within Wausau Police Department to better address issues related to unsheltered people living in the city.
The Community Outreach Specialist position was approved unanimously by the five-member committee. The measure now heads to the Finance Committee and, if approved there too, will be taken up by the full Common Council. If approved, the permanent position will be funded by the City of Wausau, likely through American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) funds.
The Wausau Police Department previously had an officer assigned to homeless outreach services but after the officer was assigned to another unit, the position has remained vacant. The position, however, will be a non-sworn one. Sworn officers typically have arrest powers and carry a weapon. Non-sworn positions neither carry a gun, nor have arrest powers.
Police Chief Benjamin Bliven told the HR Committee that officers have been receiving numerous complaints from business establishments in the downtown area and the library about unhoused residents – that they have been aggressively panhandling, loitering, fighting and using public spaces for urination and defecation. He said Wausau Policing Task Force had also recommended creating the non-sworn position. The task force previously identified homelessness as one of the top priorities in its report on policing policies and practices in Wausau.
This position is separate from another non-sworn position, a community service officer that the police department wants to create that would be funded in whole or in part by a downtown business entity. The idea of a privately-funded position within the police department to address homeless-related complaints has already drawn some concerns.
The HR Committee-approved community outreach professional will work for the Wausau Police Department, but that could be temporary. Alder Tom Kilian (Dist. 3), who suggested adding this condition through an amendment, suggested that a police department may not be appropriate for the position given the nature of the work to be performed. The amendment passed 3-2, with Becky McElhaney (Dist. 6), Gary Gisselman (Dist. 5) and Kilian voting in favor. Michael Martens (Dist. 2) and Dawn Herbst (dist. 9) voted no, saying such a provision was not needed.
In his request, Bliven referred to complaints the department received from businesses as well the department’s success in helping unhoused people, while justifying the creation of community outreach professional.
“Out of 42 persons having had contact with this (housing task force) team (identified as being homeless or having homelessness on the horizon before or during this initiative), 29 had housing by end of 2021,” Bliven’s report to the HR Committee said. “Of those persons who progressed into housing (locally or elsewhere), nearly all had zero Marathon County Jail bookings in 2021. Of those persons who continued to be homeless, we saw a consistent reduction in them being jailed in 2021.”
During the discussion former Alder Debra Ryan, who was present in the room, tried to speak, disrupting the proceedings. But chair McElhaney pointed out that public comment was not on the agenda for the day. However, Ryan persisted and even approached Gisselman to speak with him.
Earlier, McElhaney was reelected chair of the HR Committee and Martens was elected as vice chair.