Committee Considers Civilian Board to Oversee Local Police

By Joella Striebel

It’s not every day that you get the Mayor of La Crosse out in the middle of an intersection with a bullhorn but, early in the summer of 2020, in the wake of the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis, protesters did just that. 

Mayor Tim Kabat got an earful that evening, and part of what he heard was a call for improved accountability and oversight of policing in our community. This led to Mayor Kabat attending the June meeting of the La Crosse County Criminal Justice Management Council (CJMC), at which a subcommittee was formed to explore the potential for a Civilian Oversight or Advisory board in the La Crosse area. 

On Tuesday October 13th, the subcommittee held a Virtual Listening Session (watch a recording at this link) to invite input from the public on the need for police oversight and on what the scope and responsibilities of such a body might be. Several community members attended the meeting to give their remarks, while others provided written statements via email that were read at the meeting. 

Jessica Thill, La Crosse, emphasized the importance of having an accessible and transparent process to report concerns about conduct or bias:

“To my understanding, the current system requires complainants to (1) physically come to city hall, (2) send a letter by mail to the Chief of Police, and/or (3) call the Human Resources Department and ask to speak with a specific secretary, who will then inform you about the process of filing a complaint with the Police & Fire Commission. The complaint process is even more convoluted in situations where students or family members feel that they have been mistreated by a School Resource Officer (SRO). Only by reading the Memorandum of Understanding between the school district and the police will they learn that they must presumably lodge complaints with the SRO supervisor, a police officer they have never met and whose name and contact information is unavailable on the police department’s SRO website. It appears that no method of electronic submission of complaints currently exists.”

While all who submitted feedback to the subcommittee were in support of developing some sort of board, one statement took issue with the word “oversight.”

“We would vehemently oppose an “oversight” board sitting in judgment of police actions, and “Sunday morning quarterbacking” decisions that have to be made in a split second; or judging claims of misconduct by the police,” that statement read. “Such claims should be investigated by the appropriate authorities and not by a board created to circumvent a careful review of actual facts to appease and/or support demands for “justice” under mob rule.”

Nearly all who gave input suggested that any board should have representation from the diversity of communities who call La Crosse home, and some advocated for a county-wide oversight process rather than focusing on just the city of La Crosse. 

What’s Next?

The Civilian Oversight Subcommittee is still in its early stages, researching current models of civilian oversight and eliciting feedback from the community. The group plans to reach out to organizations representing populations which police interact with disproportionately, including but not limited to racially diverse communities, LGBTQ individuals, and people with disabilities.

If you are part of an organization that would like to participate in this process, or an individual who wishes to submit a written statement with input, please send an email to joella@ourwisconsinrev.com. The group is also reaching out to representatives in law enforcement for their perspectives and to hear their concerns. Subcommittee members are developing a survey that will be distributed community-wide to assess the public’s perceptions about police oversight and their knowledge on how to report concerns about policing generally or specific incidents of potential misconduct. 

At next week’s monthly Criminal Justice Management Council meeting, to be held Wednesday October 21 at 5:00 pm (link to meeting details and agenda here) guest presenter Keith Findley, a law professor at UW-Madison, will share the process that culminated in the recently approved Civilian Oversight Board in Madison. The public is welcome to attend this meeting, which always begins with an opportunity for public comment on any aspect of the local criminal justice system. 

Joella Striebel is a Citizen Member of the La Crosse County CJMC and the Chair of the Civilian Oversight subcommittee. Top image is from a demonstration against police violence in downtown La Crosse over the summer.

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