EAU CLAIRE — With the nation still grappling with the fallout from the murder of George Floyd, building trust with community members is a bigger challenge than ever for Wisconsin police departments.
It also must continue to be a top priority, state police chiefs said Tuesday at the Toward One Wisconsin conference. The two-day conference, which was originally slated for Eau Claire before moving to a virtual format because of COVID-19 concerns, focuses on individual, organizational and policy level changes that can advance social, economic and health equity across Wisconsin.
The most important thing police can do to gain trust is to be present and engaged in their communities, Eau Claire Police Chief Matt Rokus said during a session titled “The Future of Policing in Wisconsin.”
To that end, Rokus said he has participated in countless meetings with community members in the past few years, even going so far as to meet people in parks during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Fond du Lac Police Chief Aaron Goldstein said people have a right to be angry with police officers who do wrong, adding that his department attempts to bridge cultural and racial divides by engaging with community residents and stakeholders.
A successful technique has involved holding events where officers and residents sit back-to-back so they focus on listening to each other’s words instead of reacting defensively to people’s body language.
“We’ve learned the more we engage, the more we learn,” Goldstein said. “I believe by simply listening to each other we build positive community relations and we are a better police department because of these efforts.”
Rokus and Wausau Police Chief Ben Bliven stressed that hiring the right officers and holding them to a high standard is a key aspect of developing trust between police departments and communities.
“Having a good hiring process means we can be worthy of community trust ... and we will have people who are in the job for the right reasons,” Bliven said. “If they’re not, we have to get rid of them and get them out of the profession. That is probably the most important way to build trust, having people worthy of trust.”
It’s also important that police chiefs and officers be held accountable when they make mistakes, Bliven said, adding that might mean requiring more training or even termination in some cases.
Bliven encouraged individuals who have concerns about policing to reach out to their local law enforcement agencies to meet the administrators and learn their policies.
Like many Americans, Rokus watched the video in horror when Floyd was killed May 25, 2020, when a Minneapolis police officer kneeled on the Black man’s neck for nearly nine minutes.
As part of an effort to ensure nothing like that ever happens in Eau Claire, Rokus guided the Eau Claire Police Department in taking a hard look at its policies last summer. The agency held multiple listening sessions with community groups and then implemented more than 20 reforms that emphasize communication, training and de-escalation strategies.
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. The department also expanded training on topics such as bias, anti-racism and best police practices.
“You have to do more than tell officers what they can’t do or shouldn’t do,” Rokus said Tuesday at the conference put on by the Wisconsin Institute for Public Policy and Service. “You have to give them tools to increase space or slow things down.”
The Eau Claire Police Department also created a position for a licensed mental health professional to improve its response to cases involving people dealing with mental health issues and help connect those individuals with long-term services, he said.