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WXPR's We Live Up Here series is a home for stories that focus on the people, history, and culture that make the Northwoods of Wisconsin and the Upper Peninsula of Michigan such a unique place to live.

Northwoods Policing After George Floyd

Eileen Persike/Star Journal

The death of George Floyd and the resulting protests have brought scrutiny to all police forces with many people calling for radical change in their practices. This is true in the large metropolitan police forces, but it also is at the forefront of the rural police forces in our Northwoods.

An event recently in Tomahawk, “Kneel for Nine,” was attended by local Police Chief Al Elvins. He spoke at the event and then joined the citizens who knelt for nine minutes as a silent reminder of the time that Minneapolis officer Derek Chauvin knelt on the neck of George Floyd. I spoke to Chief Elvins, and also Rhinelander Chief of Police Lloyd Gauthier to get their reactions to the killing of George Floyd and the protests around the country. Gauthier describes his involvement in a protest on June 1 in Rhinelander.

“I can tell you that I had a conversation with one of the people involved in setting it up. I did want to attend. I did want to tell them that I supported them, and I wanted to tell them that if they wanted to march, they could do that.”

When Chief Gauthier arrived at the protest, he could sense that his presence was causing some tension, so he decided to stay back, and he instructed his officers to do the same. His main concern for the day was the safety of the protesters because there were people in cars who were opposed to the protest.

“I did have contact with a citizen who did not agree with the protests. That person was legally open carrying a firearm and I did have to talk with them and explain to them that the protest was legal, and they had every right to be there on city right-of-way."

Associate Professor of Democracy, Justice and Sociology at the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay Andrew Austin explains that the white community has been slow to recognize the excessive lethal force used most frequently on people of color.

“Policing does involve violence. You do have to take people into custody, but choke holds and the immobilization techniques can have lethal consequences. The public has largely been unaware of these tactics. Police officers kill about a thousand people a year.”

According to the Center for Policing Equity https://policingequity.org/, black men are about three times more likely than white men to have force used against them in a police encounter. Although this has been going on for a long time, Dr. Austin thinks the protests after the killing of George Floyd seem different. The white community is more engaged.

“Part of getting people behind a movement to stop this really requires across-race solidarity.”

One of the outcomes of the protests is the call to ban immobilizing techniques designed to cut off the air of a victim. But according to Gauthier, in Wisconsin these techniques are not used.

“We don’t teach the choke hold. The neck area is not a primary target for our use of force.”

Tomahawk Police Chief Elvins is also against kneeling on the neck or any method to cut off air. Gauthier adds that not only is kneeling on the neck not an approved immobilization technique, but in the State of Wisconsin officers should not stand by idly when they see something improper being done.

“We have a very organized, very specific use of force continuum. Part of that is the situation called ‘officer override,’ where other officers on the scene have an obligation to intervene when something isn’t being done like it should be done.”

According to Dr. Austin, one of the biggest impediments to changing the culture of excessive force by police is that they often get away with it.

“Pretty clearly there is a tendency among police to use force aggressively and there is a kind of immunity that comes with that. And if you grant immunity to a group of people who are using certain methods they continue to use those types of methods but they can also use those methods in an exaggerated way.”

Austin goes on to note that police body cameras are an important tool for exposing excessive force when it occurs. The problem is that not all police wear cameras. Tomahawk police officers have body cameras, which Chief Elvins requested soon after he took the job.

“Yes we do. First agency in northern Wisconsin to mandate that all officers wear them.”

Rhinelander police do not have body cameras, but Chief Gauthier believes that it is important that his officers wear them, and he hopes to get body cameras purchased in the next budget.

James M. Skibo is Emeritus Distinguished Professor of Anthropology at Illinois State University. He is the author of five books, including two written for the general audience, Ants for Breakfast, and Bear Cave Hill. In 2021 James moved to the Madison area and is now the State Archeologist.
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