Investigation into fmr. Stevens Point police chief reveals patterns in his conduct and fear of retaliation

Published: Oct. 17, 2020 at 10:36 PM CDT
Email This Link
Share on Pinterest
Share on LinkedIn

STEVENS POINT, Wis. (WSAW) - The internal investigation of the now-former Stevens Point Police Chief Martin Skibba reveals a pattern of conduct and low confidence in his leadership by staff. It also notes staff feared retaliation if they reported these concerns.

Feb. 26, the Stevens Point Police and Fire Commission suspended Skibba without pay for 15 days after he was found to have drunk alcohol on-duty and had open liquor bottles in his department vehicle. Immediately after that suspension ended March 18, he was placed on paid administrative leave pending an internal investigation. The commission asked the Wausau Police Department to conduct the investigation after it was presented with additional accusations of alcohol use by Skibba while he was on-duty.

Dean Dietrich, the attorney representing the commission stated that the commission received the final report, but Skibba resigned June 19 before it could finish its review of the report or pursue any additional information.

Wausau investigators interviewed 12 officers plus Skibba and issued a report totaling 71 pages. Officers identified seven incidents between November, 2017, and February of this year where they believe Skibba had alcohol in his system while performing official duties. Those incidents all involved people being able to smell alcohol on his breath.

The investigators also noted evidence they believed to be dishonest conduct as well as disrespectful and derogatory language toward minority groups and his staff.

Wausau investigators believe Skibba violated one law: having open intoxicants inside of a vehicle in the area normally occupied by the driver.

They also believe he violated 12 police department policies and six city administrative policies. The policies largely relate to how employees need to follow all rules and laws, employee conduct related to ethical, safe, and respectable practices, as well as alcohol-related policies.

“It is the opinion of investigators that substantial evidence exists and shows Chief Skibba violated policy by appearing on duty while under the influence of alcohol, operated a City vehicle while under the influence of alcohol, and possessed open intoxicants in a City vehicle,” Wausau captains Todd Baeten and Ben Graham wrote in the report.

They also noted the staff had no trust or confidence in Skibba’s leadership after officers who were interviewed mention such in their interviews as well as the union’s official and unanimous vote of no confidence in his leadership on April 20. The vote was 37 to 0 of the 39 members, with two probationary officers abstaining from the vote.

Dietrich on behalf of the commission requested that the Wausau Police Department conclude its investigation with an interview with Skibba. In that interview on May 21 with Wausau Police Chief and Deputy Chief Ben Bliven and Matt Barnes respectively, Skibba, with his attorney present, noted he had no reason to believe the information provided by his assistant chiefs in this investigation would not be credible.

Skibba acknowledged “he has an alcohol problem and it is an unhealthy pattern of behavior.” He corroborated many, but not all, of the accusations related to his alcohol consumption, though denied ever consuming alcohol while on-duty. He said, however, he had consumed alcohol while off-duty and then return to work, including ending his typical workday, having a drink, then going to a community meeting that evening.

He was unable to give Bliven and Barnes a number of times he had come to work potentially under the influence of alcohol. He added that there were occasions when he would drink late into the evening and was unsure if he would have enough alcohol in his system to register on a preliminary breath test the next day at work. He said this was not a regular habit. Skibba estimated he has driven a department vehicle with alcohol in his system 12 times. He said he does not believe he was ever over the legal limit to drive.

He said he did not have alcohol between 2000-2012 and due to personal issues began drinking in 2012 as a coping mechanism. He said most of his drinking would happen on weekends, though not every weekend.

He also overall denied accusations related to disrespectful language or actions toward his staff or minority groups saying if he said what he is accused of saying, it was done in a joking manner or he did not stop inappropriate jokes by his staff from happening, which he said does fall on his shoulders. He did admit to using profanity at times internally with staff.

Alcohol-related incidents

Nov. 9, 2017

The first allegation of Skibba being under the influence of alcohol on-duty was Nov. 9, 2017 around 6 p.m. during a staff briefing just before the department’s Citizens Academy graduation. Six officers were interviewed about this incident, including two who were in supervisor positions.

In an interview with a patrol lieutenant who has been with the department for 17 years, he told investigators Skibba came into the briefing room and began talking with the officers. The lieutenant was said he was about 10 feet away from Skibba. The lieutenant told investigators “he ‘immediately’ smelled a ‘strong’ odor of intoxicants coming from Skibba,” which he later described as “moderate.”

Four other officers said they were closer, with 5-7 feet of Skibba and all noted a strong smell of alcohol on his breath. One officer said he was swaying as he stood and spoke. Another noted he had blood-shot eyes. All of the other officers present said they did not see any other signs outside of smell and “odd” statements to indicate that he was under the influence of alcohol.

While the lieutenant could not remember what Skibba said (and neither could the other officers present), he told investigators he remembered after Skibba left that staff started talking about what they just witness and “described an ‘uncomfortable’ environment, recalled feeling bad for his trainee, and embarrassed by what had just occurred.” Many noted he appeared drunk and smelled of alcohol. Several noted staff present were shocked and fearful about Skibba’s statements, with one noting that he was talking angrily.

Some officers distinctly remember Skibba being armed and others could not remember.

There was another lieutenant who has been with the department for more than 20 years, who was in the supervisor’s office next door at the time and overheard Skibba talking to staff and was also told about the strong smell of alcohol. Neither he nor the lieutenant present in the briefing room reported the concerns or observations.

The lieutenant of more than 20 years said he did not initially report his suspicions or the suspicions of his staff and regretted how he handled that situation and not reporting it, but he said “reporting the chief would be ‘career suicide.’” He “described Skibba as ‘vindictive,’ how fear of ‘retribution’ was ‘very strong,’ that Skibba was prone to holding a grudge, and (he) was afraid of a ‘bullseye’ being placed upon him.” The lieutenant explained a scenario where he believes he was passed up on at least one promotion, which was granted to a less senior member, due to expressing a differing opinion to Skibba’s about 10 years prior.

The other lieutenant also said looking back, they should have either confronted Skibba or reported the incident, but claimed Skibba was someone who would “retaliate,” and he also noted the incident left him shocked.

According to the Wausau investigation and a 2020 memo to the police and fire commission, a news reporter also called assistant chief Tom Zenner saying that she smelled alcohol on Skibba’s breath while they were at the Citizens Academy graduation. The reported described Skibba to staff as “'wasted' or ‘plowed.’”

Zenner then went to the police department to investigate but found that Skibba had already left at that point. He told Mayor Mike Wiza about the complaint, who then shared that information with the city attorney, Andrew Beveridge, and human resources manager, Lisa Jakusz. Wiza told Zenner he would be notifying the police and fire commission and start an investigation.

Wausau investigators stated additional follow-up was not requested and Skibba was not confronted that night, but on a later date, Wiza, Beveridge, Jakusz, and Zenner talked with Skibba about the incident. Skibba at the time denied having alcohol ahead of the graduation and said the odor came from a cough drop used during the event.

Zenner in his interview with Wausau investigators said Skibba’s reply to the observations of officers and other people at the graduation was “So that’s out there,” with Zenner telling investigators he was “stunned” by that reply.

Beveridge said because of the denial and lack of physical evidence, there was no further investigation done.

In his interview with Wausau police, Skibba, again, denied drinking alcohol and did not believe he was impaired that night.

He said he had been sick several days ahead of the event. Knowing that the graduation was coming up, he said he had been taking NyQuil and DayQuil beyond the recommended dosage, which he acknowledged had some alcohol content. He said he would drink straight from the bottle and did not use the dosage cup. He said he is not sick often, so this was not typical behavior of his.

He could not estimate how much he took the night of the graduation and he said the observations made about him being under the influence of alcohol would have been a combination of using DayQuil, NyQuil, and sleep.

Skibba blamed his officers for not doing more, saying, “If all of these officers believe I was impaired and reeked of alcohol, them allowing me to walk away with a sidearm on my hip does not jive with their observations.”

Feb. 19, 2018

According to the Wausau police investigation as well as a memo to the police and fire commission after an incident in 2020, the same news reporter from the 2017 incident was at a common council meeting on Feb. 19, 2018 around 7 p.m. She called Zenner saying she smelled alcohol coming from Skibba. Both assistant chief Zenner and Mike Rottier responded to the meeting and confronted Skibba once the meeting was over.

They noted Skibba was armed at the time. They gave him a preliminary breath test (PBT), which resulted in 0.016 blood alcohol content (BAC). The PBT was taken about three hours after the report made the complaint.

At the time, Skibba said he left work at 3 p.m. and said he had alcohol at dinner ahead of the meeting.

Since Skibba blew less than a 0.02 BAC, which is the minimum cutoff for more testing to be done on an employee, the incident was not reported to the police and fire commission. Beveridge noted in a memo to the commission he learned of this incident after the incident on Feb. 26, 2020.

In his interview with Barnes and Bliven, Skibba said he remembers this incident and said he had a couple of mixed drinks while out to dinner at a restaurant and then went to the meeting. He said he directed his assistant chiefs to give him a PBT.

Aug. 7, 2018

At a police and fire commission meeting on Aug. 7, 2018 around 4 p.m., an officer who was being presented a promotion noticed a “fairly strong” smell of alcohol when Skibba came up to the podium. This officer did not formally report his observations, so it was not investigated.

Another officer sitting next to Skibba at that meeting did not notice an alcohol odor coming from Skibba.

In his interview with Wausau Police leadership, Skibba did not have a good memory of this meeting but believed he was there. He denied being under the influence of alcohol at the meeting and could not think of a reason why someone who think they would be able to smell alcohol on him.

Fall, 2018

During a private meeting to discuss a union matter with an officer (name redacted) in an assistant chief’s office in the fall of 2018 around 5-6:30 p.m., the officer noticed “a ‘strong’ odor of intoxicants on Chief Skibba’s breath.”

The officer did not report his observations, so it was not investigated. The officer said he did not report for fear that it would “jeopardize future promotion opportunities if he reported his observations.”

The officer told Wausau investigators the fear of retaliation stemmed from another one-on-one meeting with Skibba about union matters, which he said did not go well. He told investigators as he was walking out of the meeting he recalled Skibba saying “By the way, this won’t affect your application for sergeant.” He said that discussion had nothing to do with a promotional process prior to that comment and the officer told investigators he took the comment “as a reminder from Chief Skibba that he had potential power over him to ruin his career.”

Skibba told Bliven and Barnes in his interview that he would not have been drinking on that day.

Jan. 27, 2020

Two officers had separate interactions with Skibba ahead of a critical incident debriefing that was scheduled for 10 a.m. Jan. 27, 2020 at the police department.

While at the coffee maker, one officer interacted with Skibba and noticed a “moderate” alcohol odor on him.

In the hallway outside of Skibba’s office, another officer talked with Skibba and also detected a “moderate” alcohol smell.

While both officers mentioned the encounters to another officer, neither officers formally reported their observations, so the incident was not investigated.

The first officer told Wausau investigators, looking back, he should have reported the incident. He said he second-guessed himself whether he actually smelled anything and wanted to give Skibba “the benefit of the doubt.” The other officer said looking back, he should have formally reported the incident, but at the time “felt ‘disbelief,’ ‘shock,’ and possessed ‘fear of retaliation.’”

Skibba denied being under the influence of alcohol at that debriefing in his interview with Wausau Police leadership.

Bliven and Barnes noted, “When asked if staff smelling the odor of intoxicants from him at the debriefing could have been the result of drinking the previous night, Chief Skibba said, ‘It’s possible.’ Chief Skibba further explained that he does not eat breakfast other than snacking on some almonds before going to lunch.”

Feb. 17, 2020

An officer was scheduled on Feb. 17, 2020 around 7-8 a.m. to give Skibba a ride to the street maintenance facility so Skibba could pick up his squad, which was there being serviced. There were two officers in the car while Skibba was being driven to the facility. Skibba was armed at the time.

One officer told Wausau investigators “he 'could smell booze on the guy,” he “didn’t know if the Chief 'had had a long night.” He said the smell was “moderate.”

The more senior officer did not report the incident, so it was not investigated. The other newer officer did not report saying he was new to the department.

Skibba told Bliven and Barnes he did not specifically remember this ride, but said scenarios where officers will give him rides to pick up and drop off squads happens. He denied being under the influence during this specific ride. He was asked if officers' observations could have been a result of late-night drinking, he said, “It’s possible, but I can’t speak with certainty on it.”

Feb. 26, 2020

This was the incident that resulted in Skibba being put on a 15-day unpaid suspension. According to the initial investigation by the city attorney, Andrew Beveridge, on Feb. 26 around 11 a.m. assistant chiefs Tom Zenner and Mike Rottier, and Skibba rode to lunch together, Skibba was not driving. Rottier smelled alcohol coming from Skibba, but he did not detect this smell when he had met with Skibba at 8:30 that morning.

After lunch, Rottier stated he looked at security footage to see if Skibba had left the building before lunch and saw that he had driven away from the department around 9:55 a.m. in his squad. Security footage showed him returning at 10:49 a.m., staying in his car for three minutes, then entering the building at 10:52 a.m. Rottier then told Zenner about his observations.

According to the assistant chiefs' statements, Zenner then searched through Skibba’s squad while Skibba was in meetings and found a duffel bag on the floor of the passenger front seat and inside found a 1.75-liter bottle of vodka, which was half full, and a 0.75-liter bottle of vodka that was about a quarter full.

The assistant chiefs confronted Skibba around 1:50 p.m. in his office, asking him if he had been drinking. During that confrontation, Skibba denied drinking. Rottier asked if he would take a PBT and Skibba agreed and then stated, “In general, I’m not drinking, I did have a drink at my parents' house earlier.”

The PBT results came back at 0.036 BAC, which was taken about three hours after Rottier first observed the smell. After taking the PBT the report states, Skibba disarmed, the assistant chief drove him home, and the assistant chief notified the president of the police and fire commission.

“The significance of Chief Skibba departing in his vehicle was twofold,” Zenner said in his incident statement. “One, it was uncharacteristic for Chief Skibba to depart the Police Department for other than a short period of time without informing either Assistant Chief. Secondly, based on prior occasions and suspicions, Assistant Chief Rottier and I suspected that alcoholic beverages were stored in close proximity to Chief Skibba.”

In the interview with the Wausau investigators, Zenner said two weeks prior to the Feb. 26 incident, Zenner searched Skibba’s office after prior incidents gave him suspicion that he had easy access to alcohol either in his office or in his squad. Zenner did not find alcohol in his office.

In that same interview, Zenner said while Rottier was driving Skibba to his home and Zenner was in a car following, Zenner called the president of the police and fire commission and during that call, noticed Skibba had tried calling. Zenner returned the call and he told investigators Skibba made an attempt to keep them from reporting the incident by offering to allow them to give him a PBT at any time.

In Rottier’s interview with investigators, he “described Chief Skibba’s demeanor as ‘up and down, emotionally’ on the ride to his house. He would say, ‘Sorry I put you in this position. You did the right thing.’ Then he would say something like, ‘Hey, can we make a deal where you just PBT me once in a while and we just keep this between us?’” Rottier declined, adding “this has been going on long enough.”

Skibba in his interview with Wausau Police leadership did not deny these comments to avoid his assistant chiefs reporting to the commission.

The city attorney, Andrew Beveridge, investigated the incident who collected written statements from the assistant chiefs and interviewed Skibba March 9. No other formal interviews were done.

During the interview with Beveridge, Skibba confirmed the accuracy of the statements the two assistant chiefs gave Beveridge. Skibba told Beveridge during the time he left the police department, he had gone to his parents' home to go through some of his father’s possessions. He told them it was emotionally very hard since his father died in October and his mother died a few years ago.

He told Beveridge he got the alcohol out of his squad, made a drink, and drank it quickly. He said he had been keeping the bottles in the car due to difficulties with his wife, prompting him not to keep the alcohol around her. He added he had been keeping the bottles in the back of the car, but moved them to the front after making the drink that morning.

In Skibba’s interview with Bliven and Barnes relating to this incident, he said “I think it would’ve been a 16 or 20-ounce tumbler, I wound up drinking vodka and water and I’m guessing I dumped 2 to 2 ½ shots into it, give or take, and effectively chugging it.” He said to them immediately after he took the drink he drove back to work.

Skibba told Bliven and Barnes he did not believe he was legally intoxicated in that incident and estimated a BAC of about 0.06.

Skibba told Beveridge he was proud of the assistant chiefs taking action. He told Beveridge he had contacted the employee assistance program the day after the incident and had been meeting with a therapist as part of that program, looking to possibly do additional sessions after the EAP process completed. He also mentioned he is having conversations with his family about difficulties, receiving marriage counseling, reached out to the police chaplains, and talked with other police chiefs he viewed as mentors.

When Beveridge asked how he planned to restore trust in his staff and coworkers, he said he planned to call a meeting with his full staff, asking the sheriff’s office to handle any calls for a half-hour period to accommodate that, so he could address the issue. He also wanted to talk with them about mental health and emotional stress to improve the openness among staff about those topics as well as ultimately develop a more complete program for emotional support.

Beveridge recommended to the commission that Skibba have a 15-day unpaid suspension and be allowed to return to normal duty on March 19 or when he is able to give the commission documentation that he has been found fit for duty, whichever would be later. He also recommended that he undergo mandatory EAP counseling, fitness duty examinations, random PBT for 60 days administered by an outside law enforcement agency reasonably frequently. He also recommended Skibba be given a “last chance” agreement, meaning if he violates any department rules that he violated in the Feb. 26 incident again, he would be fired. The commission implemented Beveridge’s recommendation.

“Derogatory and profane language”

Throughout the Wausau investigators' interviews with officers, they indicated Skibba used unprofessional language internally to the point where staff felt uncomfortable. One officer even began to document these instances. Several officers used that to describe what they meant to the Wausau investigators when they said he had a “quirky” personality.

Officers said he would refer to minority groups in racially charged terms, such as “referring to the Hmong population as ‘short people.’” Officers said "Skibba has called department supervisors “tampon,” “sparky,” and “WOP,'” the last of which is a racial slur against Italians.

He did acknowledge he had referred to particular individuals (names redacted) as a WOP during friendly banter, saying he never recognized anyone being offended. He denied referring to anyone as “tampon,” but did say he has told officers not to act like a tampon dispenser, which he clarified to mean, “Don’t be a whiny snively person, do your job, don’t just have no more value than putting this one item out.”

Skibba told Wausau Police leadership he has used the word “Polack,” adding he “discussed the administration, and prior administrations, having joking conversations about which European country would kick which European country’s butt.” He said, “Aside from that though, I cannot think of instances, especially as the first Chief who has hired two minority officers at the department. This is one of the hardest things for me to understand right now.”

When asked if he ever referred to people of Hispanic or Southeast Asian ethnicity by anything other than such, he said “I thought about this long and hard, and if I have, I’m not recalling a specific incident. It would’ve been intended to be out of a joking manner.” When specifically asked about using terms like “short people or wetback,” he said, “I just don’t see myself using that type of term to describe the Asian population.” Later he said, “it is possible during a conversation about (name redacted) that (name redacted) would have used the term wetback.”

Officers said he used derogatory terms “all the time” when referring to women. In one instance an officer documented, Skibba referred to one of the records staff as “the vagina who wasn’t happy.” The officers said Skibba then said, “Oops, was that my outside voice?”

Skibba denied using derogatory language to refer to his records staff several times in his interview with Wausau Police leadership and denied that specific incident. He said, “others have referred to the staff that way, and his failing was not addressing it.” When Bliven and Barnes told Skibba multiple staff members have reported hearing him refer to the records staff as the c-word, Skibba, again denied using that language.

One officer said Skibba’s conversations often made staff feel uncomfortable. He described one incident where a shift of officers were at the department for a morning briefing and Skibba came in early to join that briefing. The officer told investigators he could not remember the topic Skibba was talking about to that shift, but said he began to use inappropriate and unprofessional language, adding it is not uncommon for Skibba to use profanities when referring to others, “occasionally going on a profane tirade that would become awkward for the situation.”

In that moment, the officer told investigators he “began to feel so awkward about Chief Skibba’s language that he could not keep his eyes fixed on him, and he looked away from him. Chief Skibba notice (that officer) looking away and began ‘chewing [him] out,’ saying what are you looking at (officer’s name redacted)?”

That officer told investigators he was caught off-guard and said to Skibba that he was “looking at a sign over a sergeant’s desk, wondering if the apostrophe should come before or after the ‘s’ at the end.” He said Skibba ridiculed him and questioned his promotion of him, then “stood on a chair, ripped the sign down, and threw it across the room,” before finishing what he had been talking about with the shift.

In his interview with the Wausau police chief and deputy chief, Skibba acknowledged using profanity with his staff occasionally in the private setting when trying to connect with officers as other employees use similar language. He said if he believed using profanity was detrimental to get a point across, he would not have used that language.

In the specific incident where officers say he climbed a chair and pulled a sign off the wall, he said he did not remember the incident even after Bliven and Barnes provided additional information from the officer interviews. "When asked if he believed the incident didn’t happen, Chief Skibba said, “I don’t see how I wouldn’t recall something like that, but if that’s what they recall I have no reason to doubt their credibility.”

The report from Bliven and Barnes indicates there were accusations made that Skibba has referred to a particular elected official(s) in derogatory terms and Skibba said “It wouldn’t surprise me, if at some point in time, I referred to him as an ass hat,” as this particular elected official and him, from his perspective, did not see eye to eye.

One records staff member was interviewed by Wausau investigators, but she said Skibba’s behavior was always appropriate and professional and he always treated her well. She said she never made any observations of him being under the influence of alcohol while on-duty, though she said she had heard comments like that for years.

No trust or confidence

Nearly all officers interviewed by the Wausau investigators noted they did not feel the initial investigation into the Feb. 26, 2020 incident was properly and fully investigated as no other officers were further interviewed outside of having statements from the assistant chiefs, of whom were also surprised not to be interviewed in that process.

Skibba, with review by his attorney, also wrote a statement to his staff similar to what was issued to the public about the incident. All officers interviewed by Wausau investigators noted his handling of that statement and what he said to officers about the incident in-person minimized his actions, made it seem like it was a one-time mistake. They felt he “lied” to them. They noted they do not have trust or confidence in his leadership.

This is the statement then-Stevens Point Police Chief Martin Skibba had sent to his staff to...
This is the statement then-Stevens Point Police Chief Martin Skibba had sent to his staff to explain the incident on Feb. 26, 2020.(Wausau Police Department Investigative Report of Martin Skibba)
This is the statement then-Stevens Point Police Chief Martin Skibba released to the public to...
This is the statement then-Stevens Point Police Chief Martin Skibba released to the public to explain the incident that got him suspended and put on leave in 2020.(Wausau Police Department Investigative Report of Martin Skibba)

“If Chief Skibba had just come forward and admitted he had a problem with alcohol, the Department would have rallied around him,” is one comment that several officers stated similarly in their interviews.

Another officer said he “would have commended Chief Skibba if he had accepted full responsibility for his actions, indicated he was getting help for a drinking problem and would be stepping back until he was able to lead the Department again.”

Skibba’s attorney told Wausau Police that he took responsibility for the edits to Skibba’s statements. Skibba said not being able to speak with his officers earlier in the process was what caused the officers' vote of no confidence. He said the time that passed without staff getting information caused them to open “up closets to look for additional things,” saying he had a hard time believing “some didn’t have a vested interest in seeing me go.”

He put some blame on his assistant chiefs for some of his actions in his interview with Wausau Police. He said personal and health issues that his assistant chiefs were experiencing impacted their performance. “The staff saw the assistant chiefs as not doing their jobs, and that falls on me,” he said. He also discussed concern about one officer being upset with him when Skibba told him that was not willing to hire another officer’s son due to conflicts.

He also said he failed to take action when his assistant chiefs made inappropriate racial comments. “I know the command staff has been unprofessional and I had allowed it,” he told Blive and Barnes in regards to a question about specific inappropriate racial comments or names made by his command staff. “I dropped the ball, but it did not appear that offense was being taken, and it appeared camaraderie was being built.”

On a grading scale of A-F, like school grades, most officers gave the police department’s health and morale under Skibba’s leadership at the time a "D,' with one officer giving it the highest grade of a “C” and another giving the department a failing grade in terms of morale.

One officer told investigators “that while there were many questions about what the future holds for the Department’s leadership, the comradery within the Department has been strengthened.”

Several officers noted despite these issues, Skibba had done some good during his leadership, including moving the department to a new building and obtaining canine units. Skibba in his interview with the Wausau chief and deputy chief also noted those accomplishments as well as developing a chaplains program, flattening the rank structure, creating a full-time position for crisis intervention, creating a second drug officer position, and increasing sworn staff numbers.

The commission is still actively looking for a new police chief. NewsChannel 7 tried several potential phone numbers believe to possibly belong to Skibba, but were unable to reach him for comment for this story.

Copyright 2020 WSAW. All rights reserved.