The Skibba suspension: a tight-lipped lawyer, a light admission, and lots of holes

By Brandi Makuski

Police Chief Martin Skibba will spend 15 work days on unpaid leave following an investigation that determined he had consumed alcohol while on duty.

According to a March 23 news release from the Stevens Point Police and Fire Commission—it was not clear who authored the statement—evidence presented during the course of the investigation indicated Skibba drank during his workday and that he had “open liquor bottles in his squad car.”

While Skibba was found in violation of “police department rules,” according to the news release, it was not immediately clear whether Skibba would be issued any citations or face any other charges, as special prosecutor Dean Dietrich declined to reveal most of the circumstances surrounding the issue.

The administrative action against Skibba was announced on March 23, nearly a month after Skibba was placed on paid administrative leave for reasons the city attorney and the PFC have declined to discuss.

During that period, virtually no details were released as to the nature of the investigation, even after a March 17 closed-session meeting between Dietrich, City Attorney Andrew Beveridge, and the PFC.

The investigation

Little is known about the process that was used to place Skibba on administrative leave or the investigation that followed, and though the investigation is now concluded, the information released to date has yielded more questions than answers.

Based on an anonymous tip, the Metro Wire newsroom has been working to obtain details since Feb. 28, though it wasn’t until March 3 that anyone from the city would confirm Skibba had actually been placed on leave, and that Assistant Chief Tom Zenner was running day-to-day operations at SPPD. That confirmation came from Beveridge via email.

Dietrich this week did say he believed Skibba was placed on administrative leave “roughly February 26, February 27.”

Beveridge’s office declined to fill two of the Metro Wire’s open records requests on March 13, saying he was prevented by state law from doing so during an ongoing investigation. As the investigation is now concluded, the Metro Wire filed another open records request on March 24, seeking “any and all complaints filed against Chief Martin Skibba since 2015; any and all administrative and disciplinary action taken against Chief Martin Skibba since 2015; any and all evidence pertaining to the Police and Fire Commission’s filing of a 15-day unpaid leave against Chief Martin Skibba, which was announced on March 23, 2020; the exact date Chief Martin Skibba was placed on administrative leave; and any and all information relating to the specific statutory process used to place Chief Martin Skibba on administrative leave when it occurred in late February 2020.”

The police and fire commission

The Stevens Point Police and Fire Commission is an optional powers board, meaning it acts separately from city government, and with sole discretion over all police and fire department matters. The mayor’s office and city council have no control over either department, outside of setting the departments’ annual budgets, a task carried out by the council.

The Metro Wire reached out to Mayor Mike Wiza on March 24 to ask if he had any comment on the PFC’s decision. Wiza replied, “The only thing I’m going to say is, I sincerely hope the police and fire commission made the right decision.”

The commission is currently chaired by President Gary Wescott, who holds the distinction of being the longest-serving mayor of Stevens Point, from 1995 until 2007, and again as interim mayor for about seven months in 2015 when Mayor Andrew Halverson stepped down early to pursue work in the private sector. Commissioners are Joe Kirschling, former Alderman Jerry Moore, Robert Ostrowski, and former Stevens Point police officer Ron Carlson, who retired from SPPD in 2010. Councilwoman Mary Kneebone (District 7) is the city council liaison to the commission but is not a voting member.

Wisconsin Statute 62.13(3) gives the police and fire commission “exclusive authority” to appoint the police chief and the fire chief and to appoint an interim or acting chief. The same chapter references disciplinary action against a chief, saying, “the board may suspend a chief pending disposition of charges filed by the board or by the mayor of the city.”

Yet no meeting of the board, or a quorum of the commission, was held to discuss placing Skibba on administrative leave prior to that decision last month. The Metro Wire has since asked Portage Co. District Attorney Louis Molepske, Jr., to investigate.

Dietrich said commissioners were informed about the details of the investigation during the March 17 closed-session PFC meeting, but he revealed almost none of the details surrounding the investigation, including who oversaw it, what methods were used, and what evidence was collected.

Police department rules

Currently, it’s not clear which specific department rules Skibba was found to have violated, though several references to alcohol consumption are outlined in the Stevens Point Police Department Policy Manual, which the Metro Wire obtained on March 24 via open records request.

SPPD policy 1012.3 states, “Alcohol and drug use in the workplace or on department time can endanger the health and safety of department members and the public. Such use shall not be tolerated.” The policy goes on to say, “If the member is adversely affected while on-duty, he/she shall be immediately removed and released from work,” although officers can consume alcohol as part of a special assignment, such as undercover work, they “shall not do so to the extent of impairing on-duty performance.”

Another policy, 1012.4, states that members of the department “shall report for work in an appropriate mental and physical condition,” which Skibba essentially admitted in a March 23 press statement that he had not done just prior to his suspension.

Policy 312.5.3 states that “Firearms shall not be carried by any member, either on- or off-duty, who has consumed an amount of an alcoholic beverage, taken any drugs or medication, or has taken any combination thereof that would tend to adversely affect the member’s senses or judgment.”

Reporting for work, or being at work, while intoxicated, is prohibited under Policy 340.5.11, and so is “possession or use of alcohol at any worksite or while on duty” unless the officer is working undercover.

Under the department’s firearms policy, Policy 387.3, “Firearms shall not be carried by any officer who has consumed an amount of an alcoholic beverage or taken any medication or drugs that would tend to adversely affect the officer’s senses or judgment.”

Dietrich on March 23 told the Metro Wire he “did not believe” Skibba was found to have been impaired as a result of alcohol consumption but declined to elaborate.

The department’s policy manual also includes a lengthy code of ethics, which includes statements such as, “I will keep my private life unsullied as an example to all and will behave in a manner that does not bring discredit to me or to my agency,” and, “I recognize the badge of my office as a symbol of public faith, and I accept it as a public trust to be held so long as I am true to the ethics of police service.”

What details are public?

During a phone interview with the Metro Wire on March 23, Dietrich, a Wausau-area lawyer, said “there was no official complaint filed” pertaining to Skibba’s on-duty drinking, adding only that “information was brought to the attention of the police and fire commission.”

When asked who, specifically, brought that information forward, and when, Dietrich replied, “I’d prefer not to say,” and would not clarify whether or not that individual was an employee of the police department.

When asked what process was taken to place Skibba on leave in February, Dietrich responded, “That involved a discussion with special counsel and the representatives from the commission” but declined to elaborate.

When asked what evidence was presented against Skibba, Dietrich said, “I’m not going to get into a discussion on the evidence at this time.”

Dietrich said he didn’t know if Skibba was carrying his department-issued sidearm at the time he was consuming alcohol and declined to say whether Skibba was in his squad vehicle or office when he was drinking.

When asked if it was possible the “open liquor bottles in his squad car” referenced in the March 23 press release were capped bottles being transported in the trunk, or if they were uncapped and located elsewhere in the vehicle, Dietrich replied, “I’m not going to get into details.”

Dietrich did say he was asked to serve as special prosecutor because “as the city attorney was involved with this matter, both the city attorney and the commission were concerned about any conflict of interest questions.”

Skibba responds

In the PFC’s March 23 news release, Skibba was quoted as saying he was having “personal issues” following the death of his parents, and that influenced his behavior. In a statement directly from Skibba later that day, he pointed to the October 2019 death of his father, Fred J. Skibba, as a tough loss.

Skibba said on Feb. 26, he was sorting through some of his parents’ personal items and “consumed an alcoholic drink” before returning to work. Skibba called it “a poor decision,” adding, “I recognize the importance of self-care in situations like this, and regret not demonstrating it for myself that day.”

In his statement, Skibba did not reference the open bottles of liquor found in his squad car, nor did he apologize, but said he was “grateful for the outpouring of support I have received during this difficult time,” adding, “I greatly appreciate the understanding and compassion that the police and fire commission has demonstrated as I deal with the loss of my father.”

Skibba has been with the Stevens Point Police Department since 1991 and was named chief in 2015. Skibba on Tuesday said he was “considering” a request from the Metro Wire for a phone interview.