Wausau police implement emergency shift scheduling amid statewide law enforcement changes for COVID-19

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WAUSAU, Wis. (WSAW) -- The Wausau police department implemented emergency shift scheduling on Monday as COVID-19 cases in the state rose above 400 and Governor Tony Evers announced a coming "safer-at-home" order for Tuesday.

Wausau police officer on patrol (WSAW file photo)

The changes bring longer work days followed by longer periods of time off: Six 12-hour shifts followed by eighteen days off, including a six-day on-call period. Police chief Ben Bliven says the model, shared with him by the Superior Police Department, is designed to maximize the staffing needed to continue serving the community while preparing for potential quarantines or sick officers.

"The biggest concern that I have is that this pandemic might last for two to three months," Bliven told NewsChannel 7. "Our main responsibility is to make sure that we can handle all of the community safety and security needs that may arise during that time frame."

That's meant shuffling many of the department's non-patrol officers like detectives, plainclothes officers, school resource and community resource into the patrol unit to accommodate the shift changes, while functioning around the clock with the minimum staffing of seven officers and one lieutenant. While the night shift is usually minimum staffing, dayside staffing usually includes other officers and overlapping shifts.

"[It's] to give us the best chance to weather this storm and to keep our police officers healthy so they are able to respond and keep the safety and security of our community for long term," Bliven noted.

It's a shift echoed around the state, according to the Wisconsin Professional Police Association. Executive director Jim Palmer told NewsChannel 7 in an email that the WPPA has been in touch with many departments around the state who are shifting their policing models to address the COVID-19 pandemic.

"Some agencies have divided their officers into smaller teams and [are] using schools as temporary sub-stations for them to utilize as a base of operations," Palmer wrote. "Other agencies are implementing rotations consisting of longer shifts, followed by longer periods of off-time in order to evaluate whether they become symptomatic of COVID-19."

Palmer said the WPPA is also working to address law enforcement concerns with state legislators and the DOJ surrounding an ongoing PPE (personal protective equipment) shortage, testing, lack of childcare and the use of sick time for infected or exposed officers.

Not all area departments have implemented plans for COVID-19 yet, but some have developed them to use once needed. Marathon County Sheriff Scott Parks told NewsChannel 7 they have developed plans in the event an officer became sick or other issues arose, but have not chosen to implement them at this time.

In Wausau, Bliven said the emergency declaration Mayor Robert Mielke declared last week made it easier to implement the changes given existing union contracts that allow for emergency changes. Other changes the WPD have implemented include reducing responses to calls for issues like minor accidents, taking more citizen complaints over the phone, and trying to practice social distancing and reduce time spent in people's houses.

Most of all, Bliven wants the community to be respectful of themselves, each other, and the safety and resources of his officers--who are experiencing a deluge of calls.

"We have to do our best: and that is stay home, treat each other the right way, hunker down," Bliven said. "Let’s do what we do in Wausau: and that’s love each other, support each other, and just be good citizens and good stewards of our own time and resources."