Mike Almond knows what it’s like to be pulled over by police to be asked about a “gang thing.” He was taken into custody and not allowed to show the court order in his car that explained his presence at his ex-wife’s home — to pick up his daughter.
“It was the worst thing in the world,” Almond said of being taken into custody.
A black man who moved to Superior more than a decade ago, Almond has a good relationship with police today, but he said more can be done to improve relationships with communities of color.
“For the most part, they’re pretty cool now, but let's say this for the record, the guy George (Officer George Gothner), I think what he did to Natasha … I think he was an idiot,” Almond said of the 2014 arrest of Natasha Lancour, a black woman, outside Keyport Liquor, Restaurant & Lounge. “That doesn’t reflect on all the police. You don’t have to punch a woman in the face.”
While the Wisconsin Department of Justice found Gothner’s use-of-force consistent with law enforcement standards to overcome Lancour’s resistance, the special prosecutor in the case stated that his actions precipitated her reaction.
Policing has changed in Superior since then, according to a review of the Superior Police Department's use-of-force data.
Superior Police Chief Nicholas Alexander said when he joined the department almost 23 years ago, the expectation was that officers would treat the public with the same level of respect police received. Today, he expects officers to treat the public with respect even in the face of disrespect.
“I want community members to feel safe and for the community to feel confident that when we use force, we are using it appropriately,” Alexander said.
Technology and training
A decade ago, Superior police officers responded to more than 27,000 calls for service in an average year, resulting in more than 2,500 adult arrests. Annually, officers used force in an average of 28 situations to gain or maintain control. While the number of calls for service has declined to about 25,000 and 2,000 adult arrests, on average, only about 14 arrests per year involved the use-of-force over the last five years.
Better trained officers and the use of technology are factors that contributed to the decline, Alexander said.
After taking over as Superior’s police chief in 2015, Alexander began researching and testing body-worn camera systems. Officers tested five systems late that year, and whittled the options down to two before they lobbied the City Council for authorization to purchase a system using asset forfeiture funds. The cameras were purchased and put to use in 2016.
“We’ve implemented body-worn cameras,” Alexander said. “There’s an unbiased witness there as to what did or didn’t happen. People behave better when they’re being recorded.”
Training has changed, too. Ten years ago, officers received 520 hours of training to become certified law enforcement officers in Wisconsin. Today, officers receive 720 hours of training with a final 40-hour, situation-based evaluation, according to Eric Anderson, director of criminal justice and law enforcement at Chippewa Valley Technical College, where most Superior police officers are trained.
The recognition of diversity and ethics are core abilities that carry through every aspect of the training, Anderson said. Whether learning about writing reports, traffic stops or defensive tactics, he said officers learn those core abilities throughout the program. In addition, officers receive 108 hours of direct training in cultural competence, interacting with the community, ethics, professional communication and defensive tactics.
“My feeling is that professional communication is really the heart of the whole academy,” Anderson said. “Time, distance and good dialogue, to me, work in a lot of instances.”
Wisconsin defines defensive tactics as a set of verbal skills with physical alternatives, and Anderson said the preferred mode of force is “the officer’s presence and dialogue.”
“Each circumstance is different and you want to use the least amount of force, the least intrusive amount of force,” Anderson said.
But training for Superior police officers doesn’t end when they leave the academy and finish the department’s 14-week field training program.
Alexander said professional communication and crisis intervention training give officers tools that focus on de-escalating situations without using force.
“We’ve done things like our fair and impartial policing program and brought in trainers to talk about the existence of bias that we all have,” Alexander said. “It’s not a dirty word. Everyone has it. If you have the self-awareness to recognize you do, you have the tools and strategies in place to make sure biases don’t affect your decision-making.”
Almond said he has given bias training at the police department, but he would like to see more of it, especially after the department has had so many changes in the last three years.
With many retirements among the ranks, nearly half the police department has been replaced in that timeframe.
Policy and oversight
One thing that did change in the wake of Lancour’s arrest was the makeup of the Police and Fire Commission, the citizen panel responsible for hiring and firing police officers and firefighters.
In 2014, Stephan Witherspoon, now president of the Duluth Branch of the NAACP and chairman of the Mayor’s Commission on Communities of Color, was appointed as only the second person of color to ever serve on the commission. Currently, two black people, Ephram Nikoi and ChaQuana McEntyre, serve on the commission.
Mayor Jim Paine said the commission should reflect the whole community, and it’s his goal to appoint a Native American citizen when the commission has a vacancy.
“We want to make sure every person in the community can look at that commission and see themselves represented there,” Paine said.
After being hired, officers start policing the community.
The Superior Police Department follows standards set by the Wisconsin Department of Justice when it comes to the use-of-force and has developed policy to guide officers on the appropriate use-of-force. Deadly force can only be used as a last resort when there is an imminent threat of death or great bodily harm to the officer or others.
“For us, use-of-force is only allowed to gain and maintain control of a resistant person,” Alexander said. “Once resistance stops, so does the use-of-force. And anytime we injure someone we have a duty to render aid, obviously something that didn’t happen in the Minneapolis incident.”
Alexander said George Floyd wasn’t resisting officers when he lost consciousness, making him question why Minneapolis police didn’t render aid immediately.
“Even in a case where deadly force is used, you shoot somebody, when it's safe and practical, you begin lifesaving measures immediately,” Alexander said. “We saw that here a few years back when we did have an officer-involved shooting. Officers immediately performed medical care until the EMTs came on-scene.”
Superior started revising its policing policies in December. The revised policy will introduce a “duty to intercede” when another officer is clearly using force that is beyond reasonable for the circumstances.
Almond said he would like to see additional changes, including offering more bias training, eliminating choke holds — an untrained technique that is only defensible in Superior if deadly force is required — and hiring another black police officer.
Superior hired its first black police officer, Ronald Robinson, in 2017. Alexander said since then, he hasn’t received another application from a person of color.
Paine said his goal is for the city's police force to keep learning and growing.
“The police department is here to protect and serve the community,” Paine said. “That is a forever mission. That’s something we can never say that we’re good at. We always have to be improving.”