Tiffany holds law enforcement roundtable

Area sheriffs, police air concerns of drugs, mental illness

By Eileen Persike

MMC Staff

RHINELANDER – Law enforcement from northcentral Wisconsin met with Congressman Tom Tiffany (R-Hazelhurst) on Wednesday, June 28 for a roundtable discussion.

Tiffany has been holding events, such as this one at Nicolet College in Rhinelander, around the district.

“Sitting on the Crime Subcommittee of the Judiciary Committee, we hear about issues that surround this, so we want to hear from local law enforcement, what their challenges are, if there are ways in which we can help,” Tiffany said.

The subcommittee crafted a bill called “prosecutors should prosecute,” Tiffany said, that partly came out of previous meetings with law enforcement.

“We’ve seen, not so much here in the district, but especially in some of the cities, prosecutors have been really weak on charging crimes, especially violent crime,” he said.

U.S. Rep. Tom Tiffany hosted a roundtable discussion with area law enforcement at Nicolet College in Rhinelander last month. The meeting was for Tiffany to hear the concerns of local public safety officers. MMC photo.

It wasn’t crime the officers had on the top of their lists, however. It was mental health and drugs.

Marathon County Sheriff Chad Billeb described the relationship between the two as a chicken-and-egg situation, not knowing exactly which came first.

“In 2016 we created a co-respondent program where we have a crisis worker paired with a deputy and the city of Wausau did something similar,” Billeb explained to Tiffany. “We‘ve seen huge success there, and they’re able to help folks who want the help, but when these people wind up in our jails – getting those folks help in our jails is a huge challenge; trying to get them into Winnebago, Mendota or even into a local resource, can be a big challenge.”

Oneida County Chief Deputy Dan Hess agreed with Billeb’s assessment.

“What we’re seeing now is the methamphetamine, the heroin which is causing severe mental illness with people,” Hess said. “I think a majority of mental illness is drug abuse driven.”

The challenges corrections officers face when working with inmates with drug abuse and mental illness concerns is a factor in why law enforcement has difficulty recruiting staff. And many of those hired are young and have limited experience.

“We’re hiring 18-, 20-year-old kids, and (inmates are) throwing feces out of their cell,” Hess said. “And these kids are like, ‘I didn’t sign up for this.’ So we’ve got this big revolving door for corrections.”

Officers in attendance suggested to Tiffany law enforcement is hamstrung by federal laws regarding inmates’ mental health options, and the limited number of mental health beds available due to Medicaid funding and reimbursement rates.

Stopping drugs from entering the country, Tiffany said, has been driving his message in regard to the border.

“I’ve had some sheriffs from the district accompany me down to the southern border,” Tiffany said. “What becomes very clear is the one thing we can do to reduce the amount of fentanyl coming into the country is to secure the border.”

In addition to serving on the Judiciary Committee, Tiffany is on the Natural Resources Committee and is chair of the Federal Lands Subcommittee. He said he expects to be holding a public hearing in northern Wisconsin in the fall regarding access to national lands such as the Chequamegon-Nicolet National Forest.

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