A resident task force addressing police transparency, reporting race-specific data for traffic stops, interviews and arrests, and emphasizing training on de-escalating situations are among measures the city of Eau Claire is taking in response to national and local protests over policing.
City Manager Dale Peters and Police Chief Matt Rokus released a joint message to the community Monday morning that outlined the city’s policing philosophy, practices in place to support that and some new initiatives that will be put in place.
“We are writing today to describe and affirm our ongoing efforts and outline new initiatives to validate the trust the community has placed in the Eau Claire Police Department,” stated the message.
One of those is the creation of a Task Force on Transparency in Policing, which will draw its membership from Eau Claire groups that have historically been under-represented or expressed feelings of disenfranchisement.
“We would hope to have the task force up and doing its work within a few weeks,” Peters said.
The group’s specific job will be to identify types of police data that are important to the community and should be shared on an ongoing basis, the city manager said. Doing that job is expected to take a few months and lead to a final report that will recommend a path the city should follow for data transparency in policing.
The Police Department does have a computerized record keeping system where information including the race of people stopped in traffic, interviewed in public, arrested or otherwise having contact with police is noted by officers. However, Rokus said policies and practices for using the system need to be improved so race-related data can be compiled, analyzed and used in community discussions on policing.
Another topic that has garnered significant discussion in recent weeks has been training police receive in the use of force and issues involving minority populations.
De-escalation training — teaching police ways to calm tense situations — is already mandatory for Eau Claire police officers as part of a 40-hour crisis intervention training they are required to take once. Those techniques also are brought up at quarterly and annual training sessions, but Rokus said they will be emphasized more now.
“We will be incorporating this philosophy and these tactics into regular quarterly training,” the police chief said.
Even before the May 25 death of George Floyd, a black man, while he was being arrested by Minneapolis police officers, the Eau Claire Police Department was preparing to boost its officer training in equity, diversity and inclusivity.
In February, the local department entered into a partnership with UW-Eau Claire to help develop curriculum for that mandatory continuing education for Eau Claire police officers.
Floyd’s death while a white officer knelt on his neck for nearly nine minutes prompted protests over the use of chokeholds in policing, which did cause Minneapolis to ban them.
Chokeholds already have been prohibited in Eau Claire, but the department is working to emphasize its ban on them.
“Our practices, procedures and training did not allow for chokeholds,” Rokus said.
To respond to the community’s concern, the department intends to add and emphasize the prohibition on chokeholds to its official written policy as well, he said.
In recent weeks the Eau Claire Police Department has received many questions about its practices related to concerns raised by Floyd’s death in Minneapolis.
On Friday the department posted many of those questions and answers on its website, which Rokus said will be an ongoing fixture there to improve transparency between the public and police.
“We are committing to keeping this updated as we move forward,” he said.
Last week Peters said he would research whether an $805,000 project to upgrade existing police squad car and interview room video technology and add body-worn cameras could happen sooner than planned. He intends to have an answer to the City Council next month on whether that large project originally planned for 2022 and 2023 could instead all happen in 2021.
While there were some new initiatives included in Monday’s message to the community, it also included many longstanding practices.
For example, the department mandates that officers use their current video technology and don’t turn them off or obscure the camera’s view — something that is reviewed by their supervisors.
“We were already doing that quality assurance practice,” Rokus said.
Hiring standards for new officers focus on communication and problem-solving skills over tactical aptitude or procedural knowledge.
“It is more important to find a candidate who has the right ethical qualities, cares about community, respects all people and can solve problems by working with others,” stated the joint message.
The Eau Claire Police Department already uses many of the best practices that protesters are clamoring for in the wake of Floyd’s death, Peters said, but he didn’t rule out the potential for improvement.
“There are important conversations about how law enforcement builds trust with its community,” he said. “We have an excellent police department, but this is an opportunity to explore ways we can develop further trust within the community.”