By Christena T. O’Brien Leader-Telegram staff
More than 80 percent of state residents surveyed favor having an outside investigation of police officer-involved deaths, according to the results of the Wisconsin Professional Police Association’s second statewide survey.
Gov. Scott Walker signed a bill Wednesday requiring law enforcement agencies to initiate criminal investigations whenever an officer is involved in a person’s death. Such investigations must involve at least two outside investigators, and one of them must lead the inquiry.
While most agencies – including the Eau Claire Police Department – routinely have an outside department investigate, “we think the bill signing yesterday was a good one,” Jim Palmer, executive director of the Madison-based WPPA, the state’s largest law enforcement group, said Thursday during an interview at the Leader-Telegram.
Before the bill was signed into law, outside reviews were done because of department policies, and policies can change with administrations, Palmer said.
The Wisconsin Division of Criminal Investigation and State Patrol investigated the last officer-involved death in the city. On Oct. 5, 2012, an Eau Claire police officer shot and killed an armed man outside Culver’s on Brackett Avenue.
Other highlights from the WPPA’s January-February telephone poll of 401 residents by St. Norbert College:
– 70 percent of residents said “keeping the community safe from crime” was one of their top priorities.
“Keeping the community safe from crime” scored higher than all but one of the other services or programs the survey asked residents to prioritize. Seventy-one percent listed “improving education” as a high priority.
– 46 percent of residents said deadly force is necessary and justified most of the time; 31 percent, some of the time; 14 percent, always; 5 percent, never; and 4 percent, not sure.
Kyle Roder, the Eau Claire Police Department’s community relations officer, said the number would be higher if residents understood what’s involved when an officer has to draw a weapon and fire shots at someone.
“Oftentimes, people’s judgments are made off what they see on TV, and (that isn’t always) reality,” Roder said.
Before the October 2012 shooting, the 24-year-old man who eventually was shot rammed a police car as officers attempted to stop him. He then fled in the first of two high-speed chases. He abandoned his vehicle after getting it stuck and then stole an elderly man’s SUV at gunpoint before leading police on the second chase.
He ended up in the Wagner’s Lanes parking lot and fled on foot. He approached a pickup truck in the Culver’s drive-through and raised his gun. He was shot after he failed to listen to police commands to stop and drop his weapon and walked toward the driver’s side of the truck, the entrance to Culver’s and the officer who eventually shot him.
Police are trained to continue shooting until they believe “the threat is extinguished,” former police Chief Jerry Matysik said after the shooting.
– 42 percent of residents said laws covering the sale of firearms in the United States should be more strict, down 5 percent from 47 percent in 2013; 41 percent said the laws should be kept the same.
Regarding the state’s concealed carry law, which allows permitted people to carry concealed weapons, Roder said officers’ opinions about the law doesn’t matter.
“We have a responsibility to uphold the law,” he said.
Since the law was enacted, Officer Jeryl Vonderheid said people who hold concealed carry permits are quick to tell police they have a weapon during traffic stops.
Heading into the fall elections, Palmer said he believes collective bargaining will be an issue.
Though statutory changes don’t require police officers to pay into the Wisconsin Retirement System, he said more than 73 percent of the law enforcement contracts the WPPA settled in 2013 agreed to do so.
The Eau Claire Professional Police Association and city are negotiating, said Roder, union president, and the matter is going to an arbitrator.
The City Council approved the union’s last contract, which covered July 1, 2011, to June 30, 2013, in December 2012.
Per that contact, Eau Claire police officers contributed 6.65 percent of their wages for their retirement. Effective Jan. 1, 2013, officers also began contributing 8 percent to their health insurance premiums, a 3 percent increase over what they previously paid, according to city officials.
Officers are aware of challenges faced by the city, Roder said. “We are different, have different risks and should be compensated for that.”
O’Brien can be reached at 715-830-5838, 800-236-7077 or firstname.lastname@example.org.