What degree of force is “reasonable” when making an arrest? That’s the issue to be decided by 4 members of the Taylor County Personnel Committee. Sgt. Dave Bender was placed on leave in early March for allegations that he used excessive force during an arrest. Sheriff Bruce Daniels has requested to fire Bender for the use of force, a violation of department regulations, and failing to indicate the use of force in his report. Bender is the commander of the county’s SWAT team. Personnel hearings are normally conducted in closed session, but Dave Bender requested having the testimony in open session. On Wednesday sheriff’s officers who were involved in the arrest testified their observations for nearly 8 hours. On March 4th the Taylor County Sheriff’s department was dispatched to a residence on Allman Street in the town of Medford to arrest a man with a gun, a possible Chapter 51. Six Taylor County officers entered the Shawn Steen home and after a brief struggle with Steen face-down on the floor placed handcuffs on him with his hands behind his back. Bender is accused of striking Shawn Steen twice, once while escorting him to a squad car, and a second time while assisting in putting Steen into the car. Chief Deputy Larry Woebbeking testified that Bender was “way too wired”. He felt the strike was not reasonable.
Detective Aemus Balsis testified that Steen was arguing about being arrested and wanted to know what he had done. Balsis said, once Steen was up, he was verbalizing, that was it. Bender’s attorney Bill Rettko of Brookfield challenged Balsis, “If you were trying to keep someone from spitting on you, you’d turn their head correct?” Rettko was referencing when Bender pushed Steens face telling him to “shut up” while they were walking down the snow covered driveway.
Detective Steve Bowers, a member of the S.W.A.T. team testified that the officers made a “Stacked Entry” into the home with Bender in the lead. Bender took Steen to the floor and eventually 3 officers got his arms out from under him and handcuffed him. Bowers said that as he and Bender escorted Steen down the driveway, Steen was “Running off at the mouth”. Bowers was asked if he felt threatened and he replied ‘no’. Because the lead squad car had gotten stuck in the snow, a city squad car with a cage was brought to the scene. As Bowers attempted to load Steen into the back seat, Bender reached over the door and attempted to lower Steen’s head. Steen “stiffened” up and resisted which was when Bender apparently struck Steen twice in the cheek with a backhand strike.
Attorney Ken Schmiege presided over the hearing. Schmiege asked officer Bowers if any weapons were present in the home and Bowers replied that 1 was found in the living room. Schmiege asked Bowers to characterize resistance. Bowers described 3 types of resistance as being verbal, passive, and active. Schmiege asked about Steen’s resistance after they left the house and Bowers felt it was “Mostly passive”.
Medford police officer Rich Burghaus testified that as Steen was being put into the back seat of his squad car he saw Bender use 2 backhand strikes to Steen’s cheek. Burghaus said “I call them rabbit punches”. Burghaus said when they arrived at the jail, Steen had a small amount of blood on his lip which turned out to be from a bloody nose, which he didn’t know if it had happened when they took him to the floor or not.
Deputy Nick Schuld testified he drove the lead squad car which became stuck in the snow when they attempted to drive around a vehicle which was parked in the Steen driveway. Schuld was asked whether the morale at the department is low since the event and he replied “Yes”. Officer Schuld recalled how he had been “Head butted” by someone with cuffs behind their back.
Detective Marshal Multhauf of the Dunn County Sheriff’s department investigated the incident at the request of Sheriff Daniels. Multhauf testified that he felt the use of force was not reasonable based on the number of officers available. Multhauf was challenged by Bender’s attorney who asked, “You had a suspect who was intoxicated with a .33 blood level, the longer an intoxicated individual is in control the more dangerous he becomes, correct?”
A number of references were made to the study manual Wisconsin Defense & Arrest Tactics. This booklet highlights the proper use of force on suspects. It was noted that every situation is fluid and allows for changing reactions. Mr. Schmiege asked Detective Multhauf when he felt it was justified to use a dynamic untrained technique in restraint? The officer replied: “Anytime it is justified”.
The last witness to testify was Sgt. David Fish of the WI State Patrol. Fish is a Master D.A.T. Instructor which means he teaches the Defense & Arrest Tactics to other instructors. Proper procedures from a stop to use of deadly force are taught. Officer Fish discussed the various types of resistance. He believed that Steen was displaying “Passive Resistance”. Benders attorney challenged Fish that a report by Mr. Willis stated that the force was justified. He indicated that there were conflicting reports regarding the intensity of the strikes and the number of them.
Originally the hearing was to last one day with a decision from the committee the following day. However, after nearly 8 hours of testimony, it was decided to adjourn for the day. Testimony is expected to resume with Sheriff Daniels, Officer Bender, and witnesses supporting Benders case. Because of scheduling conflicts the hearing won’t resume until July 10th.