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EC police implement multiple reforms

EAU CLAIRE — Like many Americans, Eau Claire Police Chief Matt Rokus watched the video in horror when George Floyd was killed May 25 when a Minneapolis police officer kneeled on the Black man’s neck for nearly nine minutes.

But unlike many others, Rokus was in position to do his best to ensure nothing like that ever happens in Eau Claire.

Under his guidance, the Eau Claire Police Department has taken a hard look at its policies this summer and implemented more than 20 reforms that emphasize communication, training and de-escalation strategies.

“The weeks following the killing of George Floyd was a time for introspection and a time to listen to the community and take action,” Rokus said.

That’s exactly what the Eau Claire Police Department did, first holding multiple listening sessions with community groups and individuals and then transforming many of the ideas generated into concrete policy updates.

The reforms include developing a sanctity of life statement, putting greater emphasis on de-escalation strategies, banning choke holds, strictly limiting immediate entry search warrants and adding requirements for activating recording and documentation technology and prohibiting the obscuring or cessation of that technology during an incident.

“We have looked at the energy and passion around the killing of George Floyd and others as an opportunity to continue to build trust and improve our transparency with the community,” City Manager Dale Peters said.

Other major policy changes include expanding training on topics such as bias, anti-racism and best police practices, adding quarterly training about evidence-based crisis intervention, establishing a new use-of-force review process that includes an analysis of ways force might have been avoided and prioritizing scenario-based training that supports the department’s policies regarding use of force and requiring an officer to intervene when witnessing misconduct by another officer.

A key goal is for officers to use their verbal skills instead of their weapons to resolve potentially tense situations, said Rokus, who characterized the policy changes as following through on a public commitment he and Peters made in a June 15 letter to the community in which they pledged to strengthen public trust and “maintain public safety and welfare while respecting and valuing each individual of every race and national origin.”

“These philosophies need to be built by policy and practice and, more importantly, built into our culture,” he said, expressing confidence that the changes would lead to better decisions by officers in times of distress.

Hiring practices are crucial to building a police force capable of meeting the department’s goals.

More than a decade ago, Peters said, the city shifted its focus from hiring based upon skills to seeking candidates with high ethics, strong character and a commitment to service. “Then we can train the technical skills,” he said.

Likewise, Rokus stressed that the success of the department’s efforts starts with its team of “dedicated and compassionate men and women who risk their safety to protect others.”

Peters said the reforms are part of the department’s ongoing emphasis on prevention, building relationships and solving problems instead of a traditional policing model based on just reacting to calls.

David Carlson, regional organizer for the ACLU of Wisconsin’s Rights for All campaign, said he is pleased by the changes and appreciates Rokus meeting with him and other reform advocates during the process.

“It’s great that these things are being put into effect by the Eau Claire Police Department, but this is just the beginning,” Carlson said. “It’s putting your finger in a hole in the dam, which is necessary, but we also need to confront other major issues.”

Carlson, who spoke at the Aug. 29 protest in Eau Claire in response to Black suspect Jacob Blake being shot in the back multiple times by police in Kenosha, said he wants to see more progress to prevent law enforcement interactions with people of color escalating to the use of deadly force and to alleviate the disproportionate number of African Americans who are prosecuted and serving as inmates in the Eau Claire County Jail.

“We recognize that our efforts are not perfect and there’s room for improvement,” Peters said. “However, we’re intentional with our policy reviews and our training to be as responsive as possible.”

A prominent example of that occurred this summer when, in response to calls by some community residents for Eau Claire officers to begin wearing body cameras as soon as possible, city staff worked with the City Council to accelerate the implementation of body cams to 2021. The cameras originally had been scheduled to debut in 2022 or 2023 as part of an $805,000 project that also upgrades video systems in squad cars and police interview rooms for both city police and the Eau Claire County Sheriff’s Office.

Some of the reforms emerged from research by Eau Claire police officials about best practices, but others came directly from meetings with members of the public and even the words of speakers at local protests in this summer of racial unrest across the country.

“We had a number of demonstrations in the community, with me or another senior member of the department attending each one,” Rokus said. “We listened while we were there.”

Rokus noted that Eau Claire officers worked with protest organizers to create a safe and welcoming environment for the exercise of constitutional rights without the use of aggressive equipment and police tactics that can act as a catalyst for violence.

“Effective policing truly requires efforts to strengthen community trust,” Rokus said. “We hope these improvements reflect that work, and we’re thankful for that community engagement throughout the process.”

To support its philosophy of community policing that prioritizes partnerships and problem-solving, the department has reached out to communities of color and disenfranchised populations by conducting listening sessions, increasing neighborhood bike and foot patrols, participating in community-led informal athletic events and working with the Eau Claire Area Hmong Mutual Assistance Association to establish a training program to improve officer understanding of Hmong culture.

Eau Claire police also have been working with local residents to develop a regional anti-racism effort called the Transformation Project, with the goal of becoming the most inclusive and affirming community for all people possible, Rokus said.

“We’re making meaningful progress, but our work is not done,” Rokus said, adding that it’s important for the department to continue to strive for improvement in areas including de-escalation strategies and responding to incidents involving people with mental health issues.

Carlson agreed, saying he doesn’t want people to be satisfied with this first round of reforms after Floyd’s death.

“It’s way too early to celebrate anything,” Carlson said. “This is not the time to pat ourselves on the back. It’s a time to keep pushing forward if real change is going to happen.”


Local
featured
SAWDUST STORIES
Finding stillness in the storm

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times …

With those famous words, Charles Dickens opened his classic novel, which, if you read no further, might very well be a book about camping.

Ah, camping! The foolhardiest of summer traditions! The chance to dust off the tent, unfurl the sleeping bags, and pretend, for a brief moment, that we enjoy the outdoors.

Of course, all the better if you actually do. And I do. I think. When all the conditions are right.

All the conditions certainly seemed right that Monday afternoon in late August, as my eldest children and I pulled into our luxuriously sized campsite at Coon Fork Campground 30 miles to the east of Eau Claire. Standing at the edge of our site, we peered out at the glistening 62-acre lake stretched before us, while overhead, the birds welcomed us with song. My 8-year-old shimmed beneath my left arm, my 6-year-old daughter took refuge beneath my right. Together, we all inhaled a gallon-sized breath of cool, Wisconsin air.

It was the best of times, indeed.

Right up until the storm struck a few hours later, sending us speeding back to the comforts of our home.

Warm beds never felt so good.

Returning to our site the following morning, I was relieved to find that the weather gods had taken pity on us. Our tent had not become a houseboat as I’d feared, merely a waterbed. No matter. It was nothing 10 absorbent towels couldn’t fix. Plus, it gave our trip purpose, while also providing me the opportunity to use the phrase, “It builds character,” more than my children cared to hear.

Our return to Coon Fork the morning following the storm came with an added challenge: our 9-month-old baby, who was destined to enjoy her first day of camping while my wife was at work. Perhaps “enjoy” is too strong a word. Perhaps “endure” is more accurate.

Endure she did, suffering little more than a forehead scrape after a topple from the cooler while Daddy attempted (and eventually succeeded!) in putting out an unplanned fire emanating from the cook stove.

Best of times, indeed.

Following the storm, and the fire, and the fall, we were treated to yet another character-building activity later that afternoon, when my son fired a wayward foam arrow into the uppermost branches of the tallest pine on planet Earth. His lip trembled, his eyes grew wet.

“Never fear,” I said. “This looks like a job for Super Dad!”

Unfortunately, Super Dad had a previous engagement.

Returning to my caveman roots, I reached for every rock in sight, then began hurling them indiscriminately toward the treetops, only to be reminded — moments later — that the laws of gravity remained intact, despite what that foam arrow suggested. After dodging the rock shower, I turned my attention to a nearby football.

“Watch and learn,” I said with the confidence of a man sure to make a fool of himself. I threw a perfect spiral, which landed — and held — in the outstretched arms of that tree.

More determined than ever, I next threw the Frisbee, then the lantern, then my car keys, until, at last, that white pine began resembling a Christmas tree displayed in a sporting goods store.

(Just kidding, I had the good sense to stop at the football.)

Rather than catapult more camping gear, I returned to my rock hurling. At last, one struck true, felling that football to the ground, and instilling within me enough character to last a lifetime.

When my wife and the puppy pulled into our campsite moments later, she witnessed a scene pulled not from the pages of Dickens, but William Golding’s “Lord of the Flies.” We were scraped, sunburned, hungry, tired, and maybe a little feral, too.

“How’s it … going?” she asked. The baby wailed.

Sometime after midnight, we woke to the sound of a pack of interloping raccoons slurping the dregs of our Arizona Iced Tea. That wasn’t a problem. The problem was taking place inside the tent, where my wife searched frantically in the dark for a diaper.

We searched by cellphone glow as the baby’s discomfort grew.

“I think one’s in the van,” my wife whispered at last. Sighing, I untangled myself from my sleeping bag, high-stepped over the snoozing puppy, tripped on the lip of the tent, tipped my hat to the guzzling raccoons round the campfire, and retrieved the diaper as directed. Then I reversed course — past those raccoons, over the tent lip, and atop that snoozing puppy. Proudly, I handed the diaper to my wife.

“And the wipes?” she asked.

That night, the stars hung low in the sky, detailing a near-perfect constellation map which had captured my son’s attention for the last half an hour before bed. I’d pointed out every constellation I knew, then fabricated a few others just to hold us there awhile longer.

After retrieving the wipes, I lingered, once more, on the edge of that star-filled lake, listening to the nighttime serenade which we city folks are quick to forget: the thrum of locusts, or crickets, or some other insect I probably couldn’t name.

It wasn’t the sound, but the stillness, that stays with me. We had reached the last gasp of summer, the proverbial “calm-before-the-fall storm.” And this fall, that “storm” was looking stormier than usual.

For months, my wife and I — along with every other parent we knew — had tied ourselves in knots trying to decide on the safest way to educate our children in the time of a pandemic. Given that my wife and I are both teachers ourselves, we knew that keeping the kids home would hardly protect them. And so, we’d mask them up, remind them that six feet is the length of a pool noodle, and send them off to school. And then, we’d wait. And hope that the pandemic gods were as merciful as the weather ones.

But for that brief, still moment alongside the lake, all future anxieties were put on hold. For that moment, all I had to worry about was whether those boorish raccoons would remember to clean up their empties.

I took in one last gallon-sized breath before returning to the tent, where, upon entering, I saw my entire world snoozing safely together. I reached for my sleeping bag, only to find that the puppy had since claimed it as his own.

Well played, dog, well played …

Finding a spot on the tent’s damp floor, I reached for a towel, closed my eyes, and smiled.

It was the best of times, indeed.


Covid-19
How to cast a ballot in the November election

EAU CLAIRE — The general election on Nov. 3 may appear far away, but local clerks are encouraging everyone to make a voting plan as soon as they can.

Local clerks, who oversee elections, said there will be a significant increase in requests for absentee voting, also referred to as mail-in voting, compared to previous general elections because of COVID-19.

“There’s certainly going to be a lot more absentee activity,” Eau Claire County Clerk Janet Loomis said.

The dramatic increase in absentee ballot requests has required more work leading up to the election than in previous years, but clerks feel confident full voting will occur and all ballots will be counted.

“Our goal is anyone that wants to vote, we want to make sure they’re able to vote, and we do everything we can to make sure that happens,” Chippewa County Clerk Jaclyn Sadler said.

People already registered to vote absentee were scheduled to receive a ballot later this month. That may still happen, but the process to mail ballots could be delayed by a Thursday Wisconsin Supreme Court ruling.

The court ordered that no absentee ballots be mailed until it gives the go-ahead or makes any future ruling about who should be on the ballot. The order came in a lawsuit filed by Green Party presidential candidate Howie Hawkins. He asked the state’s highest court to take up his challenge of a Wisconsin Elections Commission decision keeping him off the ballot. Rapper Kanye West, in a separate case, is also trying to get on the ballot after the commission rejected him.

The court, in a 4-3 decision split along ideological lines, said no ballots can be sent immediately. As of Thursday, nearly 1 million absentee ballots had been requested in Wisconsin.

It is uncertain what impact the court’s ruling will have on the general election, but here is information for people planning to vote over the next 53 days.

Who can vote?

Anyone who is at least 18 years old, is a U.S. citizen and has resided for at least 28 days in the area where that person intends to vote. Citizens must vote in the municipality where they reside.

How do I register to vote?

Know your name, address and date of birth. If you moved or changed your name since the last time you voted, you must register to vote again

For online registration, which must be done by Oct. 14, go to myvote.wi.gov/en-us/RegisterToVote to begin the process. After Oct. 14, registration can be done by calling your local clerk’s office or in-person on Election Day. To find your local clerk, go to myvote.wi.gov/en-US/MyMunicipalClerk.

Chippewa Falls City Clerk Bridget Givens encouraged people to include a phone number on their absentee application or voter registration application in case someone from her office needs to contact a voter to make a clarification or correction.

After I register, what do I need to vote?

A photo identification, in addition to your name, address and date of birth. Acceptable options include a driver’s license, state ID card, passport, veterans ID card and student ID along with proof of enrollment. Go to bringit.wi.gov to see a full list of acceptable photo IDs.

What voting options do I have?

Option 1: In-person at a polling location on Nov. 3 from 7 a.m. to 8 p.m. To find your poll location, go to myvote.wi.gov/en-us/FindMyPollingPlace or call 1-866-868-3947.

Option 2: In-person absentee voting before Election Day. Starting Oct. 20, in-person absentee voting will take place, mainly during weekday business hours.

Option 3: Absentee voting, also called mail-in voting. An absentee ballot can be requested online at myvote.wi.gov/en-us/VoteAbsentee or by contacting your local clerk. An absentee request must be made by Oct. 29 at 5 p.m. An absentee ballot must be received by the municipal clerk by 8 p.m. on Nov. 3.

Absentee ballots can be returned through the mail or at a ballot drop box if your municipality has one. The United States Postal Service recommends absentee ballots be mailed one week before Election Day to arrive in time. Absentee ballots can also be returned in-person at a municipal clerk’s office.

How many times can I vote?

Once. If you vote at a poll, you cannot vote again. If you vote in-person absentee, you cannot vote again. If you vote absentee, you cannot vote again.

What are important voting dates?

Oct. 14: Final day to register online or via mail to vote. After this date, voters must register in-person at their municipal clerk’s office or at a poll on Election Day.

Oct. 20: In-person absentee voting begins.

Oct. 29: Last day to request an absentee ballot.

Nov. 3: Election Day with in-person voting at polls until 8 p.m.; all absentee ballots must be received by 8 p.m.

How do I vote absentee?

Once registered, voters can request an absentee ballot if they choose. A reason to vote absentee is not needed; any registered voter can do it. Absentee ballots require a witness signature to be accepted.

If voters don’t want to send their ballot back in the mail, they can deliver it in-person to the municipal clerk’s office, many of which also have ballot drop boxes.

Eau Claire has four ballot drop boxes where absentee ballots can be returned. The drop boxes are available until 7 a.m. on Election Day. One drop box is outside City Hall on Grand Avenue, and the other three are located at Festival Foods locations in the city: 2717 Birch St., 3007 Mall Dr. and 2615 N. Clairemont Ave.

Chippewa Falls has one ballot drop box outside City Hall, 30 W. Central St.

Menomonie City Clerk Cally Lauersdorf said Menomonie is working to obtain a drop box but does not currently have one. Voters can return their absentee ballots in-person to the city clerk’s office on the third floor of the Dunn County Government Center, 800 Wilson Ave.

If voting absentee, the best way to ensure one’s vote counts is to return a ballot as early as possible.

“If you’ve got your mind made up, send it back,” Givens said.

Where do I vote in-person absentee?

In-person absentee voting likely takes place at your local clerk’s office during weekday business hours. Contact your local clerk’s office with questions.

In-person absentee voting in Eau Claire will occur Oct. 20-24 and Oct.26-30 at the parking lot behind City Hall, 203 S. Farwell St. Drive-through voting and curbside voting will be available. Voting will be available Monday to Thursday from 7 a.m. to 6 p.m.; Friday from 7 a.m. to 5 p.m.; and Sat., Oct. 24 from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m.

In Chippewa Falls, in-person absentee voting will occur Oct. 20-23 and Oct. 26-30 from 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. at City Hall, 30 W. Central St. Curbside voting will be available.

In-person absentee voting in Menomonie will take place Oct. 20-23 and Oct. 26-30 from 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. at the Dunn County Government Center, 800 Wilson Ave.. Curbside voting will be available.

Where do I vote on Election Day?

Eau Claire City Clerk Carrie Riepl expects to have 20 polling sites. Chippewa Falls will have four polling locations, and Menomonie will have four polling places. Nearly all other municipalities in the area will have one polling site.

To find your specific polling location, go to myvote.wi.gov/en-us/FindMyPollingPlace.

What health precautions will be taken for in-person voting?

Similar to election primaries in August and April, physical distancing measures will be taken for people waiting to vote. Materials such as plexiglass will separate voters and poll workers. Hand sanitizer will be available. Consistent cleaning and wiping of surfaces will occur. Local health departments will review polling locations and provide suggestions to ensure proper precautions take place.

Voters are recommended but not required to wear masks. Because of physical distancing, lines at the polls may seem longer than they actually are on Election Day. Polls close at 8 p.m. Someone waiting in line at 8 p.m. can vote.