Barriers and opportunities for oversight of police in La Crosse

By Peter Gorski

The La Crosse Police and Fire Commission’s relationship with the leadership of the city’s police and departments makes it difficult for the commission to provide real oversight, according to a former member.

“I think the lines of communication were sometimes too close between commission members and the police and fire departments they oversee, and not at arm’s length as they should be to preserve objectivity for the commissioners,” said Maureen Freedland, who now sits on the county board. “These commissions date back a century and their basic rationale is to shield decision-making from any outside political process. That continues to be important.” 

But Freedland, who left the commission in 2006, added, “Strong independence from the police and fire departments is also important. Trust and an honest relationship with the police and fire department are vital yet it may not be too easy for five citizen commissioners working regularly with police and fire leadership to go against their preferences.”

The role of the police and fire commission, and the potential it holds to provide greater public oversight of the police department in particular, is pertinent at a time of mass protests against police violence and racism. The commission can hear complaints from the public about police conduct but lacks the ability to properly dig into those complaints, Freedland said.

“I felt that during my time on the commission that it was sometimes hard to know if citizens who felt that they were aggrieved had legitimate complaints or not,” she said. “Citizens on their own may not be able to gather facts needed to present their cases, or to reveal possibly troubling patterns within police or fire departments. It would have been helpful to have greater, independent access to investigative information that revealed facts needed to determine if discipline was appropriate, or if patterns and practices needed to be addressed.”

Mayor Tim Kabat last month appointed Dr. Nese Nasif to the commission to replace a member who resigned for personal reasons. Nasif also serves on the city’s Human Rights Commission. The other members of the commission are chair Doug Happel (appointed in 2007), Bruce Jentz (2009), Roger Christians (2013) and Steven Kopp (2020). All members are appointed by the mayor, one per year, to five year terms.

Mayor Tim Kabat

“We’ve had a group that has really done an excellent job in how they have recruited and hired,” Kabat said recently of the commission. “But clearly given the times that we are in, we want to make sure that the commission is reflective of our community. About a year ago Wisconsin state law changed to be more flexible to appoint people. I am looking at making some additional changes before terms are up. I don’t know how many changes we are going to make, and I am discussing it with the commission.”

POTENTIAL FOR AN EXPANDED ROLE

The commission oversees disciplinary action against officers and hires police and fire chiefs. However, it could exercise far greater powers.

The Wisconsin constitution also lays out the possibility for a police and fire commission to organize and supervise the departments, provide rules and regulations, and contract for and purchase all necessary apparatus and supplies. These powers can be given to the commission with a public ballot referendum. Getting this referendum on the ballot requires a petition with 20% of the voting base from the last gubernatorial election signed on. 

“I know that in my terms that (referendum) has not been discussed,” Kabat told The La Crosse Independent. “There is a current effort underway now looking at the involvement of citizens to provide advice or oversight. When George Floyd was murdered and the protests erupted, one of the things that I really felt is that we should have a closer connection between the police department and the community.”

At present, the commission in La Crosse spends much of its time interviewing candidates for open police and fire positions, according to Happel, the current chair of the commission, which he has sat on for 13 years.

Doug Happel

“Normally we meet once a month and there is a report both chiefs present,” he said. “We also approve appointments, promotions, handle probationary periods and so forth. Nearly always we follow their recommendations, and they always give us their reasons for doing it.”

When asked about the possibility of expanding the powers of commission, Happel said, “We’ve never discussed that. The mayor is the day-to-day supervisor. The budget is set by the city council. The commission does establish rules and regulations regarding hiring and firing. One thing we do, which other communities may not, is the requirement for monthly reports. They are technically reporting to the public.”

Criminal Justice Management Council

Another public body that’s looking into policing issues locally is the Criminal Justice Management Council, which is part of the county government. The council has three subcommittees that look into community oversight of police, school resource officers, and police training. Members of the council include the district attorney, judges, and the sheriff, as well as multiple citizen members. However, while the council can make recommendations, it has no authority over policing and cannot make any final decisions on policy or legal issues.

Joella Striebel chairs the council’s subcommittee on oversight and has been a citizen member of the council since 2017. The CJMC is working on recruiting new citizen members to fill vacant spots.

“Our subcommittee work is beginning with a period of research and development. We’re exploring research on existing community oversight bodies, particularly those in communities similar to La Crosse. We are reviewing current Police and Fire Commission policies and practices with a particular eye on the accessibility and transparency of the processes in place for citizen complaints regarding police misconduct,” Striebel said.

“We have identified several barriers in this process in just a cursory review and look forward to making recommendations that will empower citizens to feel safe and supported when the need for investigating alleged misconduct arises,” she said. “We have a strong focus on equity, accountability, transparency, and accessibility, and our ultimate goal is to develop sustainable recommendations for community oversight in La Crosse.”

Statistical analysis of policing in the state has concluded that non-white youth are significantly more likely to have police contact and, as a result, have much higher arrest rates. While this was reported most recently in 2014 and a county task force was created, no significant progress has been seen yet. 

The La Crosse police department also recently settled a racial discrimination case brought by a former officer for $83,000, which points to internal issues for the force. The case stemmed from events in 2014 and alleged that a black officer was forced out after reporting a fellow officer’s misconduct.

While many departments have bans on chokeholds and other proven lethal techniques, many communities have seen a lack of accountability, and police continue to injure and kill citizens with dangerous and illegal tactics. These national trends would appear to make a strong case for increased oversight and accountability measures.

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