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Storms batter Chippewa Valley
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EAU CLAIRE — A strong line of storms moved through the Chippewa Valley at daybreak Tuesday, prompting severe thunderstorm warnings and leaving thousands without power.

Xcel Energy reported that the thunderstorms knocked out power to nearly 4,000 customers, primarily in Eau Claire. Downed power lines and poles, along with lightning damage to equipment, caused most of the issues, company spokeswoman Chris Ouellette said.

With rain continuing for several hours, Xcel crews battled difficult weather conditions as they worked to restore power to customers throughout the day Tuesday. By midafternoon, about 500 customers were still without power, and company officials expected electrical service to be restored to all customers by Tuesday evening, Ouellette said.

Winds of more than 30 mph were recorded by the National Weather Service during the storm, with gusts of up to 63 mph. For reference, sustained winds of at least 39 mph are tropical storm force winds.

Heavy rains arrived with the storms. Between 6 a.m. and 9 a.m. nearly an inch of rain fell at the Chippewa Valley Regional Airport. Most came in two waves of storms about an hour apart. By late afternoon, the local airport had received 1.56 inches of rain Tuesday, according to the Weather Service.

The first line of storms prompted the agency to issue severe thunderstorm warnings for Eau Claire, Clark, Trempealeau and Jackson counties. There were reports of damage to buildings, including an apartment in Eau Claire that had vent covers torn off the roof, leading to significant leaking.

Perhaps the strangest report came from Eleva. The Weather Service initially reported a downed power line in the village south of Eau Claire had caused a fire, but the report later was corrected to say a lightning strike hit a gas line, causing the fire.

The Eau Claire Fire Department indicated Tuesday’s storms resulted in crews responding to numerous calls for service throughout the city during the morning and midday hours, including an apparent electrical fire at a house on Fourth Street that Battalion Chief Steve Vargo said may been caused by a lightning strike or a downed power line in the backyard.

In response to calls about downed power lines, fire crews worked to assess whether they involved live wires and helped to secure the areas until Xcel personnel arrived to make repairs.

In the event of downed power lines, Vargo said residents should steer clear of the wires and notify their local power company as soon as possible.

Powerful wind gusts also knocked down a number of large trees Tuesday in Eau Claire, leaving many residents scrambling to clean up the mess.

The Weather Service indicated it expects an active weather pattern with multiple rounds of thunderstorms across the region this week.

A few locations could see several inches of rain, so localized flooding may become a concern later in the week, the agency said.

City's insurer settling 2 cases against Eau Claire police
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EAU CLAIRE — The city’s insurance carrier, Wisconsin Municipal Mutual Insurance Co., has agreed to settle two separate federal lawsuits brought against Eau Claire police officers.

“The choice to settle these cases were business decisions made by the City of Eau Claire’s insurance company, and focused primarily on the costs of litigation rather than on the facts of each case,” according to a statement co-signed by Interim City Manager David Solberg and Police Chief Matt Rokus.

The City Council was apprised of the insurer’s decision to settle the cases during a closed session meeting on Monday night.

“The city does not admit any fault and this was a decision by the insurance company to settle for these amounts,” Deputy City Attorney Douglas Hoffer said.

In the lawsuit brought by Tyler Holte against the city for being shot twice during a 2015 arrest, the insurer will pay $725,000.

Jeff Scott Olson, Holte’s attorney, called the settlement “a reasonable compromise on both sides.”

In April 2015, police believed Holte could be armed based on comments he’d made to people and did not want to go back to jail, according to the city’s statement. Officers were preparing to arrest Holte on a felony warrant when they saw him drive off at high speeds — his mother initially clinging to the vehicle — through a neighborhood after an argument with family members.

“On April 1, 2015, our officers faced an extremely dangerous and difficult situation created by Tyler Holte,” Rokus said.

Instead of engaging in a high-speed chase, police later found Holte’s vehicle and then located him on a steep wooded embankment behind VFW Post 305, 1300 Starr Ave. Holte did not comply with verbal demands to show his hands and when he appeared to reach into his waistband, Officer Hunter Braatz shot Holte twice — once in the left leg and once in his left arm. No weapon was found on or near Holte. Officers rendered first aid to Holte before emergency medical technicians arrived to transport him to a hospital for treatment of his wounds.

While investigations into the shooting deemed it justified, Holte’s lawsuit held that it was a violation of his rights.

“This case was about one officer with an otherwise unblemished record who fired what we contended were two unreasonable rifle rounds into the body of Tyler Holte, who received immediate and competent medical care from both the officers on the scene and the EMTs who arrived immediately, and, as a consequence, survived,” Olson said in an email to the Leader-Telegram.

Holte’s attorney disputes the city’s characterization of his client as dangerous, but says he’s a kind-hearted man who got addicted to opioids after a bad car accident and deserves a second chance.

“Tyler Holte has paid his debt to society for the criminal offenses he committed when he was addicted to street drugs,” Olson wrote. “In the wounds and disabilities he will carry for the rest of his life, he has more than paid for any misjudgments he made on April 1, 2015.”

Officer punched man

For the other case being settled, the city’s insurer will pay $325,000 to Chester Stabenow for a 2017 incident where an officer punched him multiple times in the face.

Officers had been called to a home on Lloyd Drive on the night of March 14, 2017, when a tow truck crew said they were threatened with weapons by residents while attempting to repossess a pickup truck. Squad car dashboard camera video provided by the city shows officers talking to multiple people, including asking Stabenow if he’s armed. He told officers he had a folding knife in his pocket, volunteering to retrieve it for them. As he reaches for his pocket, multiple officers grab Stabenow and he struggles against them. At one point Officer Michael McClain punches Stabenow several times in the mouth, according to court filings from both the city and Stabenow.

The insurer for towing company Bonafide Recovery and Transport is also agreeing to pay a $50,000 settlement to Stabenow.

The Braatz shooting was subject to both outside investigations and an internal review, which deemed the use of force was appropriate given the danger Holte posed to his family, police and the public when he resisted arrest, the city’s statement read.

“The police department’s response at every point was reasonable and necessary,” Hoffer said.

Braatz resigned in good standing from the police force on Oct. 20, 2016 — over a year after the shooting.

The Stabenow incident was subject to an internal review early last year in response to the lawsuit brought against the department.

While the strikes McClain made to Stabenow’s face were acceptable under state standards, that use of force was not consistent with high standards within the Eau Claire Police Department, according to the police chief.

“There were better use-of-force options than delivering multiple strikes to Stabenow,” Rokus said.

McClain resigned following the department’s internal investigation, working his last day as an Eau Claire police officer during June 2020.

Making changes

Rokus, who began as police chief at the end of 2019, directed a review of use-of-force policies and procedures last year, according to the city’s statement.

“We’ve had a lot of improvements and changes come out of that secondary review,” Rokus said.

This comprehensive self-examination came in the wake of the Stabenow-McClain review, but also amid discussions across the nation and locally about policing in the wake of George Floyd’s death while he was being arrested in Minneapolis.

Internal police policy changes that happened in Eau Claire include a new use of force review process and review board, frequent audits of recordings, additional use-of-force training and greater emphasis on de-escalation strategies, Rokus said.

“In order to have the trust of our community we must constantly examine ways to improve our officers, need to be accountable, have the best training and we must thoughtfully examine how we use force, all while being transparent with the public we serve. These efforts will remain continuous,” Rokus said.

One of the other changes to policing sought by community members and city leaders was speeding up the issuance of body-worn cameras to Eau Claire police officers.

The city has field-tested three different systems and is soon to decide on a contract with a vendor for the body cameras, as well as new video equipment for squad cards and police interview rooms.

Rokus said he’s optimistic that officers will begin wearing body cameras before the end of this year.

Hoffer said the additional video recording equipment for police will be beneficial to law enforcement by clearly showing their interactions with people and reducing the potential for disputed facts that can lead to lawsuits.

“We look forward to having body cameras and other tools to understand how these situations are handled,” Hoffer said.

City OKs kiosk
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EAU CLAIRE — A business group will install an artistic wooden kiosk in Phoenix Park that will display information to help visitors find their way around downtown and learn about upcoming events.

On Tuesday the City Council voted 10-0 — Councilman Andrew Werthmann was the lone absence — to allow the North Barstow/Medical Business Improvement District to put the kiosk in the park.

“The kiosk has been something the North Barstow BID has been wanting to do for quite some time,” city Economic Development Manager Aaron White said during Tuesday’s meeting.

The business group, which funds downtown enhancement projects via a self-imposed special assessment on its members, has already budgeted for the project, White said.

The location approved by the city is at the north end of the Haymarket Plaza bridge at a spot currently occupied by a raised flower bed with a few rose bushes in it.

Councilman Jeremy Gragert asked if the kiosk will be on a raised platform or flush with the pavers that surround the planter already there.

White replied that the planter will be removed and replaced with a concrete pad that is flush with the surrounding walkway, putting the kiosk on even ground and making it fully ADA-compliant.

The kiosk will have large interactive touchscreens on two of its sides with the third being occupied with a regular bulletin board.

When people are not touching the digital screens to look up directions to downtown attractions or information on upcoming events, those monitors will automatically show a rotating selection of still images. White likened the kiosk’s screens to wayfinding displays found in shopping malls and at public transit stations.

The downtown kiosk will not play sounds that go with images on display, White noted.

The structure itself will be made by Timber Space of Eau Claire — woodworker Tim Brudnicki and artist Joe Mauer — out of reclaimed wood. Atop the kiosk will be a green roof with native plants in it. A rain chain dangling from the roof will end in a new planter that will be placed next to the kiosk. The oval-shaped planter will be full of native plants and its rim will serve as a bench for people visiting the park, based on a city memo describing the project.

In addition to paying for the kiosk and installation, the business group is required to do upkeep on it, according to the agreement signed with the city.

Other business

• In a 10-0 vote, the council agreed to a land swap that will create a new riverfront park in Eau Claire’s Cannery District and turn a flat, one-block neighborhood park into land for residential development. The deal trades the city’s Kessler Park for property along the west bank of the Chippewa River that was owned by Eau Claire’s Redevelopment Authority.