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Wisconsin State Patrol kicks off recruiting class with eye on diversity

As the Wisconsin State Patrol begins the process of selecting it 66th recruit class Monday, it have an increased focus on enhancing diversity of the force, where about nine out of every 10 officers is a white male.

Of the State Patrol’s nearly 500 sworn officers — including cadets in the most recent recruit class — 89% are white, 2.6% are black and nearly 92% are male, according to data provided by the Wisconsin Department of Transportation. Wisconsin’s population is 86% white, 6.4% black, and half female.

According to 2015 U.S. Department of Justice data, racial or ethnic minorities accounted for 27% of local police officers in 2013. African American officers made up about 12% of local police officers in 2013, or about the same as the country’s overall population.

“There’s certainly an opportunity here as an agency to go out and recruit in those areas,” State Patrol Superintendent Anthony Burrell said. “Are we going to get there overnight? No, but we know that the opportunity is there.”

Burrell, who has been with the department for almost 30 years and in January was appointed by Democratic Gov. Tony Evers as the State Patrol’s first African American superintendent, said a diverse force that reflects the community helps the department best serve the public.

“We want more women to apply, we want people of all cultural backgrounds, of all educational backgrounds,” said State Patrol Lt. Nate Henriksen. “Sometimes people will think, ‘I don’t have any experience in law enforcement’ or ‘I don’t have any criminal justice education,’ but you don’t necessarily need that.”Burrell, who is president of the National Black State Troopers Coalition, said increased outreach and education in diverse communities, as well as showcasing the many activities carried out by State Patrol officers, could help bring in more racial and ethnic minorities.

The department enforces traffic laws, inspects commercial motor vehicles, and conducts incident management, crash investigations and criminal reconstructions. It also has a SWAT team, pilots, K-9 officers and drone operators.

There are about 50 cadets in the current 65th recruit class, Miller added.

The department also last year relaxed the patrol’s requirement of 60 college credits in an effort to boost recruitment. Rather than require potential officers to have at least 60 college credits before they apply, State Patrol officers now have up to five years after being hired to earn a related degree or attain at least 60 credits.Rob Miller, spokesman with the Department of Transportation, said the department generally brings in more than 750 applicants . About half of those make it to the second phase in the process, which is the physical readiness test. Other components in testing include background checks, interviews and psychological tests.

The recruiting period beginning Monday continues through Jan. 12. With recruitment coincidentally beginning this year on Veterans Day, Burrell noted the department has had success recruiting veterans, who make up about 20% of its officers.

“We’re also looking at enhancing our opportunities with our veterans communities,” Burrell said. “Men and women who serve this country in the military will certainly understand and know what a paramilitary organization, a police organization, like State Patrol, is about.”

Lt. Edward Witkiewicz, who has been with the State Patrol for about 13 years and from 2002 to 2010 served in the U.S. Army, said he never intended to join law enforcement, but he was drawn to the mission and camaraderie.“We’re a paramilitary organization, we have an academy that’s tough — physical fitness in the morning, a lot of classroom work during the day,” Witkiewicz said. “So we train together, we work out in the field together, we go through incidents together.”

I-74 bridge workers: Contractor Lunda purposely delaying bridge

DAVENPORT, Iowa — Current and former workers on the new Interstate 74 bridge say the primary contractor intentionally kept bridge construction off schedule over the summer in a clash with the state over funding.

As of Thursday, the Iowa DOT was acknowledging for the first time that construction is likely to lag about a year behind schedule. The westbound span was to be finished this season. Bad weather and other delays pushed the schedule to the middle of next year. But that target may be missed too.

“We are pleased with recent momentum of setting the latest segments of the arch, however, there is still a lot of work to be done, and it is more likely that the completion of the Iowa-bound bridge will be in the second half of 2020,” Danielle Alvarez said Thursday. She is the Iowa DOT’s project manager for the I-74. “The completion schedule is dependent on the arch. Our priority is constructing a safe, sound structure and we are proactively taking steps to mitigate delays and complete the Iowa-bound bridge as quickly as possible.”

Lunda Construction, based in Black River Falls, Wisconsin, is building the bridge. Of the estimated $1.2 billion in total costs for the span, ramps and related roadways, Lunda’s original contract with the Iowa Department of Transportation was about $322 million.

In the spring, the DOT allocated about $16 million more to pay for more workers, among other things, to make up for lost time related to weather. Under the contract modifications, Lunda estimated it would finish the arch and the arch floor system for the westbound span by Nov. 4. On that date last week, the arch was not halfway finished, and no part of the floor system had been erected.

A former supervisor for Lunda said he was directed to keep bridge workers “off schedule” as the company sparred with the Iowa DOT over the release of contract-modification money. He said he was told to keep his orders “hush-hush,” which was the same expression used by ironworkers who said they were pulled off bridge work over the summer.

“The I-74 bridge arch is a complex structure that presents unique challenges,” according to a statement issued Thursday by Lunda in response to a list of questions supplied by the Quad-City Times. “Lunda has encountered issues with the design; specifically the geometry of the arch and tolerances utilized in the design.”

While Lunda has maintained the design for the bridge is “not constructible,” the project manager for the Iowa DOT said the state disagrees.

At issue: Design of bridge

The new westbound span of the I-74 bridge originally was scheduled to open this season.

Last winter was long and harsh, and the spring brought repeated and record flooding. As a result, construction was delayed.

However, the cooperative summer season did not deliver the kind of progress that was expected. Alvarez, I-74 project manager for the DOT, has repeatedly answered questions about the ongoing delays by pointing to the complicated nature of the basket-handle design arches. It is essential the arch segments rise in a precise trajectory from their piers on the river to their meeting point high above it.

Lunda spent a total of 55 days building a pulley-like stay-cable system that is used to guide the arches. By Thursday, a total of 16 arch segments were attached, leaving 18 to go for the westbound bridge. A DOT official initially said the entire arch-raising process should take just a few months, but eight months have passed since the first segment was set.

“Lunda is in control of scheduling each individual aspect of the bridge construction,” Alvarez said. “The length of time to erect the stay-cable system was longer than anticipated, based on Lunda’s schedule.

“Iowa DOT has continued to coordinate with Lunda to keep work moving, as evidenced by the recent erection of four new arch segments.”

The statement from Lunda indicates the company did not delay work “under its original contract scope,” but the company declined to address specific accusations and questions.

“Lunda is dedicated to resolving these issues with the Iowa Department of Transportation through the partnering process, which both parties committed to on this project,” the statement continues. “As part of Lunda’s fidelity to the partnering process, Lunda will not address specifics of any particular portion of the project in the conviction that negotiating in public runs counter to the spirit of the partnering process.”

“At no point in this project has Lunda delayed work under its original contractual scope. Lunda looks forward to continuing in the partnering process to work through the issues of geometry, tolerances and contractual interpretation with the (DOT) to successfully complete this unique and exciting project.”

Alvarez confirmed negotiations are ongoing and said the DOT does not agree with Lunda’s assertion the bridge design is flawed.

“There have been discussions regarding clarifying tolerances, or in lay terms, the degree of accuracy needed each time a piece of the arch is set,” she said. “Although the DOT has provided clarification of tolerances in response to Lunda’s requests, our position is that at all times it remains constructible.”

The Iowa Attorney General’s office has been involved in relations between the DOT and Lunda. As the DOT’s legal counsel, however, the Attorney General cannot disclose the nature of its role in the contract matters, given the attorney-client relationship.

Accusations from workers

Lunda is using ironworkers from Quad-City-based Local 111 and from Joliet-based Local 444.

Some ironworkers spoke on the condition of anonymity. Several who previously spoke with the Quad-City Times about their pride in taking part in the historic build of the new bridge were disciplined by Lunda for doing so, they said.

Several of the ironworkers reported being pulled off ironwork on the bridge without explanation. They instead were assigned “busy work,” such as fabricating dozens of frames that later were scrapped.

An engineer for a competing bridge-construction company, also speaking anonymously, said many in engineering and bridge-building circles have been questioning the delays on the I-74. Specifically, the engineer said, arch construction has taken way too long, especially given the cooperative weather during the summer construction season.

He introduced the notion that Lunda was claiming the bridge design was “not constructible,” which the DOT and Lunda later confirmed. The bridge was designed by Pennsylvania-based bridge-design firm Modjeski and Masters. The firm’s founder designed the Government Bridge at the Rock Island Arsenal and the original spans of the I-74.

The slow-moving progress that has marked the summer season has prevented Lunda from taking receipt of some of the additional money allocated by the DOT for catch-up work.

Of about $16 million outlined in a March contract modification, Alvarez said, only $3.9 million has been paid. The funding was earmarked for nighttime make-up work to expedite westbound-bridge construction.

By the end of May, she said, “it was apparent that second-shift work was not geared toward the completion of the westbound bridge. We discontinued any further payments for second-shift work for this reason.”

A former supervisor for Lunda said he recently separated from the company, partly because he refused to supply the DOT with dishonest answers for delays. He said he felt like he was doing “a top-secret job.”

The former employee, competing engineer and two ironworkers each categorized the bridge delays as attempts by Lunda to “hold hostage” the I-74 build until the DOT agreed to pay more money.

“We review all requests for additional compensation, and there is a process for coming to an agreement within the contract,” Alvarez said, noting contract modifications are “common” on construction projects. “There are some items that we’ve come to an agreement on and some where we are still negotiating with Lunda.”

YMCA Teen Center in La Crosse celebrates 15th anniversary
Emily Pyrek / Emily Pyrek, La Crosse Tribune  

YMCA staff gather in the Teen Center kitchen, where cake and food were served for the facility's 15th anniversary celebration. 

Fifteen years ago to the day, the La Crosse YMCA took a pivotal step in addressing the mental, physical and social health needs of area high schoolers, offering a free, welcoming and nonjudgmental environment for everything from problem solving to playing board games.

Since Nov. 4, 2004, the Community Teen Center, located behind the Dahl Family YMCA, has served 8th through 12th graders of all backgrounds, affiliations and interests, with a communal priority of fostering self esteem, drive and compassion for others.

On Saturday afternoon, teens, staff and community members celebrated the facility’s landmark 15th anniversary, expressing thanks and enthusiasm for what for some is a safe haven in their otherwise stressful lives before partaking in art, mindfulness exercises and music.

The colorful, comfortable and well-stocked facility, says Lisa Luckey, YMCA teen and youth services director, was made possible by the generosity and collaboration of community members, and former Teen Center frequenter Bryce Dorff says even more important than the physical structure is the inclusive atmosphere and poignant relationships formed.

Emily Pyrek / Emily Pyrek, La Crosse Tribune  

YMCA mental health director Sarah Johnson, left, smiles while YMCA teen and youth services director Lisa Luckey, right, greets a visitor at the YMCA Teen Center 15th anniversary celebration.

“This is really a safe place to dream big,” says Dorff, now a case worker at St. Clare Health Mission.

While many programs or hangouts catered to teens offer recreational activities, creative outlets and a chance to catch up with friends, the Teen Center incorporates life skills and overall wellness into the mix, using a model based on strengths, resilience, social-emotional development and positive psychology.

Peer leaders express to each person who drops by the Teen Center, “You are valued, this is your place, we have high expectations of you and will teach you how to meet those expectations,” while stressing the foundational rule of respect.

“We have a culture where you can talk about emotions, feelings, thoughts and fears in a safe place,” says Sarah Jackson, former youth engagement director at the Dahl Family YMCA.

Emily Pyrek / Emily Pyrek, La Crosse Tribune  

Kaitlin's Resource Library is among the offerings at the YMCA Teen Center, which also has a computer room, music space, lounge area and kitchen. 

In keeping with the Teen Center’s mission, staff are trained to recognize signs of emotional duress and how to effectively respond to concerns, such as offering referrals to counselors.

They also connect teens with diverse programs, from art classes to young men’s discussion groups, and available resources like free food. At the forefront of every interaction is the knowledge that, as a drop-in facility, staff may have just one opportunity to engage with a teen, so it is crucial to make it a positive and hopefully impactful experience.

Jamie Mueller, attended the Teen Center until graduating high school last spring. Once fearful she wouldn’t complete school, she says the staff, affectionately called “green shirts,” were instrumental in helping her overcome challenges related to a brain surgery and school struggles.

“I can’t thank them enough for that,” Mueller said. “They became a second family.”

Emily Pyrek / Emily Pyrek, La Crosse Tribune  

YMCA teen and youth services director Lisa Luckey, left, greets a crowd of community members at the YMCA Teen Center 15th anniversary celebration. 

Zach Bouchard, who is on his fourth year utilizing the Teen Center, has had his own health struggles, diagnosed with epilepsy a few years ago. He was treated with compassion by staff, he says, noting, “These people put their heart and soul into this place and making sure everyone is safe and having fun.”

Mueller has seen growth not just in herself but in the peers she met over the years while they gathered around the Teen Center couches to chat, congregated in the kitchen for a snack or poured their hearts out when high school romances fizzled out.

“I’ve seen teens here grow from freshman who have no idea what they’re doing to seniors who are conquering the world,” Mueller said, briefly overcome with emotion. “My goal next year is to come back and work. I want to give back and see all the teens grow here.”