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Police Chief Tom Zenner. (Metro Wire photo)

PFC: ‘Tom Zenner helped heal the entire city’

By Brandi Makuski

Interim Police Chief Tom Zenner said he had no idea how vocal members of the Police and Fire Commission would be after voting to make him chief of police on Sept. 14.

Zenner had been interim chief—or, acting chief—since Feb. 26, 2020, taking over the department when its former chief was placed on leave.

“We didn’t know it then, but COVID was just around the corner,” Zenner said last week. “So it’s been kind of a whirlwind for the past year-and-a-half.”

Shortly after he took the reigns at SPPD, racial tensions began to rise across the nation following the death of George Floyd in Minnesota. Though several protests were held in downtown Stevens Point, the fever pitch of violence largely missed central Wisconsin, due in large part to Zenner’s proactive dialogue with protest organizers and internal tactical planning, according to the Stevens Point Police and Fire Commission.

Commissioner Jerry Moore said that was just the tip of the iceberg that Zenner helped steer the department around. Many of the challenges Zenner and SPPD had to face, he said, were unknown to the masses because they happened out of public view.

“There’s the pandemic and all the PPE and precautions they had to get used to—because we had no way of knowing how serious COVID was at the time—then there was the protesting about George Floyd, and then some groups started forming to protest masks, and let’s not forget the whole Casey Bielen thing; that was not just a fire department thing, that was an emergency services thing,” said Moore, the PFC’s liaison to the police department. “It’s hard to imagine what these police officers had to deal with during all of the criticisms, the fingerpointing, the namecalling. And he’s dealing with regular, everyday PD issues on top of it all.”

Commission President Gary Wescott said he “didn’t have enough positive things to say” about Zenner’s performance through the challenges. But with Zenner eyeing retirement, the PFC began a nationwide search last October for a permanent police chief.

Zenner said he planned to help a new chief transition into the department; after that, he hoped to quietly retire after more than 25 years with SPPD.

The Commission offered the chief’s position in March to the assistant police chief from the UW-Madison Police Department, but he turned down the job.

Wescott said even before the setback, Zenner had been performing as a fully-fledged chief.

“It would be very easy for me to sit here and site examples of policy, procedure, things he has improved at the department by showing leadership,” Wescott said. “Sometimes, when people are put in interim positions they become caretakers, basically placeholders, until the next boss or leader gets there. Tom has been anything but that; he seized this from the beginning and provided leadership, guidance, and during a very difficult time…he has changed the tone, the tenor, of that department. He has been anything but a placeholder; he has been the chief of police. It has been a tremendous job done, and by dropping the term ‘interim,’ it’s only going to get greater and greater.”

Zenner said he delayed his retirement plans after a long talk with Moore. During last month’s PFC meeting, Zenner said he was “humbled” by the remarks about his performance, but later told the Metro Wire he’s staying on a bit longer because of the officers and other staff members in the department.

“It comes down to consistency and stability for this department and for the officers who serve the community,” Zenner said. “The department deserves some consistency after everything that’s happened. Another change in leadership, so soon after everything…it’s just better for everyone, even those outside the department, to maintain a consistent management team. The officers deserve that.”

Moore said Zenner, along with Assistant Police Chief Mike Rottier, showed “enormous courage” by stepping forward in 2020 to alert the PFC about problems with their former police chief.

“Tom didn’t ask to be placed into the chief’s position; it’s what he got thrown into,” Moore said. “But the officers are following him, they’re doing things that need to be done. He’s leading by example and doing what needs to be done—and has done more than we have asked him to. He’s done an outstanding job; his leadership and demeanor helped heal the department, helped heal the entire city.”