Local law enforcement: Justice center should be on greenfield site

By Brandi Makuski

Local law enforcement say it was a mistake for the Portage Co. Board of Supervisors to deny funding for a new county justice center, and their message is simple: the downtown jail location isn’t safe.


In April, the Portage Co. Board of Supervisors voted 15-10 in favor of a greenfield site, a yet-to-be-determined location on the city’s east side. But movement on the project stalled when, earlier this month, 10 Supervisors voted to deny the funding, saying they preferred the downtown location instead. Eighteen votes were needed for the funding measure to pass.

Sheriff Mike Lukas said he was “disgusted” with the denial, and he believes it was a big mistake.

“From the get-go, my stance was for the safety and security of the staff, the public, and for our inmates. I thought it was imperative that the jail and courthouse should be built together,” Lukas said. “After seeing that safety and security were not a priority to some of our County Board members, and some court officials, I’ve changed my stance in keeping the jail and courts together.”

Lukas said he plans to ask the Board to construct a standalone jail and law enforcement center, even if it means going outside city limits to the east, because the requirement to keep the circuit court system inside the county seat (currently, Stevens Point) doesn’t apply to the jail and law enforcement center (LEC).

Stevens Point Police Chief Bob Kussow and Plover Police Chief Ryan Fox say they also support a greenfield site, and both believe politics mired the issue for too many on what should have been a simple decision.

“I believe the courthouse and the jail need to be together, wherever they go. But that being said, for law enforcement, the safety aspect of it, I don’t necessarily think it’s a bad idea to go just out by the city limits,” Kussow said. “Obviously, I want what’s best for the whole community. I do care about the downtown businesses, but from the law enforcement perspective, it’s dangerous to have to go through the city at a high rate of speed if we’re leaving the jail or LEC to respond to an emergency situation.”

While SPPD has a location on Michigan Ave. that’s close to the interstate, and aligns smoothly with most main thoroughfares of the city, the sheriff’s office resides between numerous one-way streets and surrounded by close-quartered residential neighborhoods. That puts everyone at risk when an officer has to respond from the LEC, police say.

“Anytime you put your lights and sirens on to respond emergent in the city, that puts everyone at risk, especially in a residential area,” Kussow said. “For safety reasons, I’d go with the outskirts of town.”

The Plover Police Department, too, has a location on Post Rd. that is close to I-39, and makes responding to incidents relatively easy. But Fox said transporting suspects to the county’s jail is risky business for any agency.

“Especially if the sallyport is full, then we have to park outside and walk people in,” Fox said. “A lot of cops get assaulted right before and right after a transport. When you’re taking someone to jail, their anxiety is climbing the closer and closer you get to confinement, right? You’d be surprised how many people try to fight with police and jailers when they get behind locked doors. Reality hits. So when you have to walk them from outside in, that’s however-many-feet of opportunity for them to try to escape. Another thing you have to worry about is, where are their friends? Are their friends around, and will they attempt an ambush?”

Fox said the whole matter boils down to the safety of officers, inmates, and the community.

“From Plover’s perspective, being a little selfish, if we can have a jail closer to the village, that’s more efficient for our agency, in a more rural setting versus having to drive through the city…right now, it’s very time-consuming, and it’s not set up from a safety standing,” Fox said. “We’re a small agency, we’re short-staffed, we’re trying to find efficiencies to help save time and make it more efficient for us. I’m absolutely in full support of moving that campus to a green space; the green site would reduce the risks that transporting suspects and inmates involves.”

Kussow’s concerns mirror Fox’s, and both pointed out the serious safety concerns with walking inmates on a public street from the jail to the courthouse.

“You can look at the environmental aspect to it, we have six months of winter. Walking across the street in shackles and handcuffs, that’s not safe,” Kussow said. “Those are minor things, but if you look at the big picture, if someone wants to get free, there’s that opportunity for them, from the door of the sheriff’s office to the door of the courthouse. Anything could happen at that point. You can get struck by a vehicle, somebody could be waiting for them; it’s just not safe to walk someone who is in custody across the road where somebody else is walking inside the courthouse to pay their taxes or get a permit.”

Lukas said his office regularly depends on outside experts for guidance on various topics, to include specialized training, or contract work like remodeling or construction. In turn, the County Board should heed the advice of law enforcement professionals like him, Kussow, and Fox.

It’s a message he also wants to send to the Stevens Point City Council. Lukas said when he heard about last week’s 7-4 vote by the Council to approve spending up to $50,000 to hire an architect to create a new, but unsolicited, downtown master plan for the Portage Co. justice center, he thought he heard it wrong.

“When I first heard this I thought, ‘You’ve got to be kidding me.’ You don’t get your way so you’re going to pay taxpayers’ money to tell people how to do a project,” Lukas said. “This is an unbelievable ploy to try to have the city say, ‘Oh, see, we are working with them.’ That’s not working together. That’s strong-arming.”

Lukas also said after several negative comments were made publicly by city officials about the designs produced for the county, following an RFP process, by design firm BWBR, he worries vendors might lose interest in bidding for future projects.

“The city approving $50,000 of taxpayers’ money to flush down the drain to try to slant a study to show the feasibility would fit their vision, and not the county’s vision would be more of a waste than the $500,000 already spent on this project because working together does not mean slanting something for your way,” Lukas said. “If they think the county did not look at all areas from the get-go…I don’t know how many meetings I sat through where they went through the pros and cons of it all. The taxpayers should be saying, ‘What are you doing?'”

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