Fewer traffic stops, more patrols: A month of pandemic policing in Marathon County

A Wausau Police Department squad car (WSAW Photo)
A Wausau Police Department squad car (WSAW Photo)(WSAW)
Published: Apr. 22, 2020 at 7:48 PM CDT
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Since March 24 when Governor Tony Evers’ Safer at Home order to combat the COVID-19 pandemic was announced, policing in three of the largest law enforcement agencies in Marathon County has shifted to balance decreased contact with people while maintaining heightened visibility. Call numbers have dropped, and due to a number of factors, crime has stayed either at normal levels or shifted downwards since the pandemic started.

Beginning March 24 through April 22, 7 Investigates requested reports of all service calls for 2020 from Wausau Police Department, Marathon County Sheriff’s Office, and Everest Metro Police Department. As a baseline, 7 Investigates requested the same datasets and time frame from last year.

Overall, both WPD and MCSO have seen a 30% decrease in service calls and in Wausau a

requiring a report, while EMPD has seen a similar decrease in overall time spent on calls. The decrease is largely explained by a shift in pandemic policing away from traffic stops and towards heightened patrol visibility, all three agency leaders explained.

For the March 24-April 22nd time period in 2019, the three departments made a combined 1,499 traffic stops. In 2020, since the Safer-at-Home order was implemented, they’ve made a combined 156.

“We’re doing policing a little bit differently than we have historically,” WPD chief Ben Bliven said, a sentiment echoed in pandemic policy changes for all three departments. For less contact with the public but to maintain visibility in their communities, that’s meant a pointed shift towards the type of call that in police terminology is called an ‘extra patrol’: checking on a specific neighborhood, driving through a park, responding to a request to check on a property. It’s the kind of call that isn’t prioritized on a busy day, Everest Metro police chief Clayton Schulz explained, but has become an important component of visible policing as traffic stops decrease during the pandemic.

“One of the things that we’re really focusing on is to be really visible…in these types of times where people are anxious or fearsome, it’s good to see that there’s individuals like law enforcement out there that are patrolling or trying to keep you safe,” Marathon County Sheriff Scott Parks noted. “A lot of agencies have elected to have their people work from home and just respond to on-calls. We have said just the opposite: we want our cars out there, we want them visible, we want them patrolling.”

Between all three departments for 2019’s time frame, there were just 167 business checks and extra patrols—which are logged as their own service calls. Since the Safer at Home order, that combined agency number is up to 1,717, or a 928% increase—nearly all of them initiated by the officer or deputy.

“I’m glad to see that,” Schulz said. “Our self-initiated stuff should be higher, now that our calls are lower.” His officers are required to be extremely precise when logging an extra patrol, he explained, because they serve three different municipal jurisdictions and for funding purposes have to report those separately to each. For his agency, that has resulted in an apparent higher number of service calls since the pandemic, but offset by a lower overall time spent on calls for officers when compared to 2019.

Crime calls, however, have stayed relatively the same when compared to the same time period in the previous years. Individual agencies have seen small shifts in one direction or another for certain types of crimes. Broadly, however, the data doesn’t show marked increases in crimes like domestic violence, assaults, and disturbances—and in some cases, like in Wausau proper, the shift is down. There’s been 91 arrests since the pandemic occurred, as compared to 238 arrests for the same time period last year.

“Juvenile disturbances are down, fights are down, non-domestic violence-type fights are down,” Bliven said, but also has a caution. “Sometimes the data is hidden. You don’t see it, because people aren’t calling law enforcement when there is in fact domestic violence going on.”

“One area that we expected to see an increase in would be domestic abuse or domestic violence and also child abuse,” Parks noted. “And those are staying fairly close to the norm.”

In the areas of Weston and Schofield, Schulz says that the shift down in calls is also resulting from fewer people calling for service because they know officers are trying to limit contact.

With quieter city streets, it’s now just a waiting game till this is all over. Currently, the Department of Health's Safer at Home extension order runs through May 26, but is being challenged by Republican legislative leaders in the state Supreme Court.

"We’ll get through this pandemic,” Bliven said. “Our country and our community has been through a lot of things over the years, and we’ve always made it through.”