Blair committee debates police department staffing

After coming up with a short term plan for the Blair Police Department, the city’s police ordinance committee discussed long-term staffing plans.

The city council announced the retirement of police chief Tim Wheeler (see story elsewhere in this week’s edition) and accepted the resignation of officer Tim Spaeth at its Feb. 3 meeting, leaving the city with just one full-time officer on staff. 

At last Wednesday’s meeting, the committee took action by appointing volunteer officer Randy Jensen to interim chief until the next chief of police can be hired. Ordinance committee members agreed that once hired the next chief must be a participant in the hiring process for filling the department’s third officer position, should they decide it is needed. 

Spaeth was given the floor to review his experience with the city and provided some recommendations for the department. Moving forward Spaeth said that the city needs to work on communication with the department, saying the two remaining officers “had 11 days without word of Wheeler’s retirement.” 

Spaeth recommended that Jensen be involved in the chief hiring process as well. 

Conversation on moving the department forward began with another discussion between council members Lisowski and Ekern on where the limited resource of police officers in the community are most needed and when. 

“Don’t get me wrong, I’m not trying to eliminate the department but community input is necessary,” Lisowski said. “Our officers will get one call in an eight hour period; that’s slim pick-ins. We need to look in a different direction because the community has been speaking up. Some of the hours we are patrolling, there is nothing going on. Not enough to warrant a full-time salary to go to one call in an eight-hour shift.”

Ekern said in reply that “Law enforcement is a what-if service just like the fire department. I don’t want to see a reduction because you don’t know what the problems are going to be.” 

Resident and former city council member Tim Robertson said there is a perception problem with the Blair Police Department. 

“It’s a problem for the business owners,” Robertson said. “Chief Wheeler was a great officer, but not a great communicator. I talk to people all the time that think they [police] should be out by the highway, but I think they need to be in the community.” 

Lisowski said that he often hears that residents are afraid to visit Blair because they are afraid of police intervention. “I think a commission of residents to direct the department could be helpful.”

Ekern said that he also gets the sense that people in the community are critical of the police and the stops officers make on people stopping through. 

“The county just received $19,000 for zero tolerance enforcement in our county for driving under the influence, speeding, no-seat belt, etc... Zero tolerance; that’s the county doing that and here we are criticizing our own department for doing what the county is getting grants from the state to do,” Ekern said. 

Ekern also said that he believes not everyone in town is on the same page or aware of the actual statistics for law enforcement contacts and that is creating friction among different parties. 

Trempealeau County District Attorney John Sacia was provided time to address the committee on Blair’s law enforcement requirements that included a breakdown of the 158 individual referrals to his office in 2019. 

“Look at the number [of referrals] coming to my office. I can tell you that many of these referrals in 2019 were methamphetamine, domestic strangulation/suffocation, violation of bond, and committing other serious offenses,” Sacia said. “These are not low ordinance violations, these are crimes.”

Sacia said Blair is second only to Arcadia — a city with more than 1,000 more residents — in terms of referrals to his office. According to a search of the Wisconsin Court System website, the Blair Police Department was the issuing agency for 24 felony cases in 2019, just one fewer than the Arcadia Police Department; Whitehall was third with 14.

“That should tell this body something. I think the message these numbers said is that there is a real issue in the city of Blair,” Sacia said. “A business owner would want to make sure there is a diligent force to watch the community and protect their interests. You guys have an opportunity to ensure a good tradition of law enforcement continues and is even restored.” 

The Arcadia Police Department employs three full-time officers in addition to the chief. 

Sacia added that there is a lack of knowledge about crime rates in communities.

“People don’t really know what is going on in their community,” Sacia said. “They don’t realize what a person high on meth looks like. They don’t know what they are looking at even when they see it at the gas station. They don’t realize that child abuse and neglect is taking place just up the street. They are disconnected from the criminality taking place in the community. I think this number shines a bright light on the fact that it [crime] is taking place and if people knew how much work law enforcement in the city were doing they would be vociferous in their support of law enforcement here in Blair.”

After the Times reached out to Trempealeau County Sheriff  Brett Semingson, he said that he is aware of the situation in Blair, but said that nobody from the community has approached him for any reason in relation to the police department. He said not having a constant police presence isn’t uncommon in Trempealeau County. 

“In the spirit of cooperation the sheriff’s office responds to calls for service in these communities in the absence of a police officer on duty,” Semingson said. “If the case is an emergency case, we’ll contact the police chief. If asked, we will handle the entire call. If the call is not an emergency and the caller wishes to wait for a city or village officer, the call will be placed on hold until a local police officer is available.  If the caller does not want to wait the Sheriff’s Office will handle the call. This is no different in the City of Blair. Obviously they are extremely shorthanded right now and I expect my deputies and investigators to assist however we can.”

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