Amid a nationwide spree of protests against police treatment of minorities, City of Verona officials are looking to see what changes can be made locally.
After police chief Bernie Coughlin delivered a lengthy report detailing demographic data of arrests over the past three years to the Common Council, Monday, June 8, alders asked about a variety of options to make things better. Those included community policing, changing the department’s presence at schools, additional oversight, additional training and more funding for mental health.
Coughlin defended the police school liaison, the Police and Fire Commission’s oversight and the department’s training practices, but he agreed mental health is a concern and said more training never hurts.
He also noted an inherent disparity in the city’s arrest statistics, which factored race, ethnicity and home city. Coughlin’s data showed that in 2017, while 3.1% of the population of the city identifies as black, 37.7% of the city’s 135 arrests during that time were of black people.
The death of George Floyd in Minneapolis on May 25 – which Coughlin condemned as terrible police work – has renewed calls for police reform, removing police from schools and even defunding police departments to make space for community-based solutions to crime. Recent protests have referred to other deaths of unarmed black people at the hands of police, including Breonna Taylor in Louisville, Kentucky, last month and Sun Prairie teenager Tony Robinson in 2015
Mayor Luke Diaz told the council he asked for the presentation because he didn’t want to hide from the problems facing police departments.
“I think we’re all shocked by what we saw in Minneapolis,” Diaz said. “I don’t want to fall into that cliche of, ‘It can never happen here,’ even though that is kind of what I think.”
Coughlin told the council he believes strongly in the impact of community policing, a method of policing that focuses on building strong relationships between officers and residents.
“Police are the community, and the community are the police,” he said. “Without each other, and a reliance on each other, we go nowhere together.”
Ald. Chad Kemp (Dist. 1), who is black, asked Coughlin if incidents at Verona Area High School accounted for much of the disparity in arrest statistics. He pointed out that it appeared most of the police department’s interactions with black people are during the age range of 15-19. In 2019, 7.1% of the school’s 1,598 students identified as black, or around 113 students.
Coughlin acknowledged that was the main way that police interacted with black youth, and said some come from the City of Fitchburg within the district boundaries.
Ald. Charlie Ryan (D-2) asked whether Coughlin would support removing the police school liaison officer from VAHS, and Coughlin said he thought that would be a mistake.
That would make police interactions at the schools reactive, rather than proactive, Coughlin said.
Ryan also asked Coughlin whether a community oversight committee that would review complaints submitted on officers would be feasible, and he asked for clarification on how officers with complaints against them are held accountable.
Coughlin said he would have concerns about a citizen-appointed committee to oversee police. He said the qualifications, backgrounds and motives of an oversight group would be different from a municipality’s Police and Fire Commission.
Commissioners are appointed to five-year terms, Coughlin noted, adding that a citizen complaint form is available.
“No system is perfect, but (the commission) is pretty accurate and does a good job to handle basically the hiring (and) firing of police and fire officials,” he said. “Our commission is no different.”
Ryan asked Coughlin about what kind of training, specifically inherent bias training, Verona police officers participate in each year.
Coughlin said that while the department has its officers do 80 hours of both in-service and specialized training each year, regardless of what level they’re at, he welcomes having more training. Some of those training seminars include the use of firearms, dealing with mental health issues with Journey Mental Health and de-escalation techniques and implicit bias, Coughlin said.
“A police officer has to know a lot about a lot,” he said. “A variety of what you deal with is a challenge.”
Both Diaz and Ald. Heather Reekie (D-4) wondered if more funding could be put toward mental health and addiction abuse that lead to so many of the VPD’s calls for service, or if regional options would work in Verona.
Coughlin said around 80-90% of calls made to police are related to alcohol, drug abuse or mental illness.
“We train our officers in mental health issues and crisis intervention,” he said. “Blatantly put, the police get called sometimes not because we’re the experts, but because the public doesn’t know who else to call – it’s kind of by default.”