Changes to BPD chaplain program sparked dissent

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BELOIT - After reorganization of the Beloit Police Department chaplains' program, the group's former coordinator is speaking out about the shake-up.

In an April 12 letter obtained by the Beloit Daily News, six members of the Beloit Chaplain Association - the former department chaplain staff - resigned, saying they felt the group had "lost our identity and credibility" due to changes within the department for the chaplain unit, which had been operating to assist officers for many years.

In February 2016 police department management moved to establish what it called the Pastoral Advisory Team, shifting the role of the chaplains' program to focus on building community ties, according to Pastor Michael Ramsdail, who became one of the members of the new group.

The advisory group was started shortly after the murder of Beloit 5-year-old Austin Ramos Jr.

Ramsdail had organized a candlelight vigil to remember the child, leading to individuals coming forward to give information about the shooting.

After the vigil Ramsdail discussed the need to form stronger community ties within Beloit's religious community to "open up the lines of communication" with the department, with a focus on discussing concerns held by Beloit's black community, he said.

"More than ever, with Chief David Zibolski's leadership we are forming a solid bond between the department and the religious community, and have plans to construct a network of community members that the department can continue to partner with in order to be on the cutting edge of 21st century policing strategies," Ramsdail said.

Since its founding, the team organized the department's rolling listening session schedule, "Conversations With The Community," to discuss various public safety concerns with residents.

Ramsdail said the advisory team is available to assist the department when called upon, and the eight active members "share thoughts and concerns that we hear in the community," he added.

But the new initiative in the department led longtime pastors who had served as police chaplains to feel excluded, according to Pastor Bill Wagner, who had been with the chaplain program as the lead coordinator since 1992. Wagner also criticized lack of communication during the changes.

"We were never really notified," Wagner said. "It just evolved one after the other."

The former coordinator stressed keeping or not keeping a chaplains' program was at Zibolski's discretion, but Wagner said he knows the program can help officers in stressful and trying situations.

The six chaplains said their role had been "reduced to nothing more than mere citizens available when needed" despite each of the chaplains having extensive training. Wagner said none of them had been contacted for input in the ongoing department changes.

Changes ranged from removing the chaplains' vehicle from the department's fleet, and not allowing the former chaplains to use official police department letterhead and uniform patches, Wagner said.

Advisory team members are in the process of recruiting ministers to become part of the reorganized chaplain unit. The group is also looking at participating in a statewide task force that would provide chaplain training to new members.

"We're always concerned about officer well-being in the department," Zibolski said. "It's (essential) to provide those needed resources."

The advisory team also was created to align with national policing standards, referencing aspects of former President Barack Obama's Task Force on 21st Century Policing document, Zibolski said.

The resignations were "completely the decision of Mr. Wagner and his members," the chief said, adding the department worked with the former chaplains to assist the advisory team with "cultural changes occurring in the department and to provide suggestions for program growth within the new culture."

In the months leading up to the resignation, Wagner said he and the other chaplains felt communication had broken down, challenging Zibolski's version of events.

In September, Wisconsin Attorney General Brad Schimel announced more resources for chaplains across the state.

"Chaplains also play an important role in law enforcement agencies and communities, offering critical emotional support to law enforcement and victims," Schimel said.

Wagner and the five other pastors have since joined the Town of Beloit Police Department as chaplains, and also work with authorities in Walworth and Green counties to provide support services.

"Our role is to be an assistance to the officers and to be there for whatever their needs might be," Wagner said. "It's for counseling support and to show that we care about what we are doing. Because you have to build that relationship."

Of the department's new changes, Ramsdail said, "Being part of the pastoral advisory committee has been great...The department has been very open and receptive to use and values our thoughts and opinions."

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