Jim Olson

DeForest Police Chief James Olson speaks to a crowd during his swearing-in ceremony in March.

It’s been about nine months since DeForest Police Chief James Olson took over the reins of the organization. According to Olson, who addressed the DeForest Village Board last week, he’s spent the last several months working to make changes within the department.

During the board’s Dec. 3 committee of the whole meeting, Olson presented a snapshot of what he has been doing while adjusting to his role as head of the police department. When he first took over in March, Olson began looking at recommendations made by consultants working with the village during investigations into former chief Daniel Furseth and the department last year.

The initial investigation into the department was conducted by Mark Beckner, who noted in his report to the village that he found “some potential red flags that could indicate some implicit racial bias in how the department operates.” According to his report, between 2014 and mid-2018 6.3 percent of total traffic stop contacts made by DeForest officers were with African American motorists, although the village’s black population was only 0.5 percent. He noted that given the region’s demographics that percentage “may not be out of line at all” due to the major highways running through the area. The department’s rate of black arrests had risen to 17.2 percent by 2018, compared with 12.9 percent prior to 2016, according to Beckner’s report.

Olson told trustees he plans to review the department’s collection of demographic data – statistics about who officers are interacting with through traffic stops and other incidents – on a biannual basis going forward. The chief said staff is also working to develop a process to review squad car video so supervisors can identify if officers are using “a pattern of tactics.”

Olson discussed various modifications the department has been working on, from updated training to policy alterations. Specific areas being targeted include early interventions with staff, trauma-informed care education and monitoring citizen complaints, according to Olson.

The chief said he’s talked quite a bit with staff about watching for signs of biased-based policing and other inappropriate work behaviors in officers. Along with that, Olson has emphasized the importance of investigating complaints made by the public.

“I’m redoing our personnel investigation policy,” Olson told the board. “… There’s a lot of police departments that have gotten in trouble for trying to talk people out of complaining and I absolutely just don’t tolerate it.”

According to Beckner’s report, there were 52 documented complaints against department employees between 2009 and mid-2018. Only four of those complaints were sustained, meaning the employee was found to be in the wrong.

In the near future a complaint form will be available on the department’s website, with citizens able to submit the form via email. Currently, individuals must call the department’s office to speak with a supervisor about the issue or acquire a complaint form in-person or via mail.

“We’re here to be accountable,” Olson said. “We’re going to hold ourselves accountable for misconduct.”

In addition to those changes, Olson recently had the department complete a trauma-informed care training, as he wants to shine the light on “soft topics” like how officers interact with people. The chief said while his staff has been great at completing tactical trainings, he’d like to incorporate more guidance about fair and impartial policing.

Along with updates to policy and trainings, Olson said another focus has been recruiting minority candidates for open positions. A group of officers recently volunteered to be part of a team to look for diverse applicants at places like tech colleges. However, Olson said they’ve had “very few minority candidates” during recent hiring processes.

“Minority hiring is a huge challenge,” Olson said. “Not necessarily because there’s not great candidates, it’s everyone is after the great candidates.”

Olson is hopeful they will have a diverse pool of applicants for an office assistant position which they will be conducting interviews for soon.

As for 2020 goals, Olson said the department will be working on succession plans, financial oversight and rewriting policies, along with increasing community events and other improvements, in the next year. The incoming school resource officer will be tasked with creating a citizens academy program for middle and high school students, according to Olson.

Olson plans to return before the village board early next year to review a transparency report he’s compiling. He also intends to meet with the village’s police commission on a quarterly basis to provide department updates.

IN OTHER NEWS, trustees unanimously passed three resolutions honoring locals for their accomplishments at their Dec. 3 meeting. One of the resolutions recognized Richard Josephson for the 16 years he spent on the village board and other municipal committees. The board also passed resolutions commending Cecile and Samantha Fuchs for recently winning the WIAA Division 1 State doubles tennis title and the DeForest varsity football team on their WIAA State Division 3 championship.

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