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.”