Six months ago, Embrace, an organization providing services and resources to survivors of gender-based violence in four conservative northwest Wisconsin counties, placed a Black Lives Matter sign outside its offices and posted an anti-racism statement on its website — two actions that set off a backlash resulting in ended partnerships, lost funding and national media attention.
In the months since, Embrace has been working to salvage broken relationships, forge a way forward and continue providing services to survivors of domestic and sexual violence. But in the aftermath, the anti-racist statement is still on the website and Embrace has realized partnering so closely with the police may not be what’s best for its clients. Some in law enforcement leadership say they might have initially reacted too harshly out of frustration, even if they still dispute the prevalence and severity of racism in the area.
Embrace, which has been providing services and shelter to survivors in Barron, Price, Rusk and Washburn counties since 1980, posted the anti-racism statement in late September — after Wisconsin was thrust into the center of protests and counterprotests around racism and police violence following the police shooting of Jacob Blake in Kenosha in late August.
“As an anti-violence organization, Embrace cannot end one form of violence without addressing the other, and we cannot properly serve all survivors if we do not acknowledge and address the oppression and violence the most marginalized survivors are experiencing,” it states. “Embrace does not support or advocate violence against anyone, even those who are accused of doing harm. Racism, police violence, sexual violence, and domestic violence all have the same root causes, and they interact and compound on each other both in society and within the survivors we serve.”
Embrace staff members say the statement and the prominent posting of Black Lives Matter signs at their offices were important because while the counties they serve aren’t very diverse — Barron County is 95% white, according to census records — their clients are disproportionately people of color.
Embrace leadership says they were only trying to show those they’re responsible for helping that the organization supports them.
“We’re trying to get the point across that no, Black Lives Matter doesn’t mean that we hate the police and that we want to cut off all ties with you and never work with you again,” says Brittny Olson, an Embrace program coordinator. “We are simply trying to show the most marginalized survivors in our communities that we’re safe and that they can access services with our organization.”
But however hard Embrace leadership tried to convince local law enforcement and government that they weren’t anti-cop, the broader context prevented that from happening.
Embrace’s service area is partially in the Twin Cities media market — meaning for months, local TV news had discussed the response to the murder of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer last May, showing video of occasionally violent protests against police on the evening news.
Then, Blake was shot in late August as the presidential election was heating up and protests in response to that shooting left buildings damaged and the city shocked. Campaign visits to Kenosha by Donald Trump and Joe Biden further politicized the issue.
One month later Embrace posted its statement and set off a whirlwind. The Barron County Board of Supervisors forced the health and human services director and sheriff to resign from the Embrace board of directors. The sheriff’s offices in Barron and Washburn counties cut ties with the organization, so did several local police departments, according to a Wisconsin Public Radio report.
The Barron County Board also cut $25,000 in funding that had been budgeted for Embrace in 2021. While not debilitating to an organization that had a $1 million budget in 2019, according to its publicly available tax records, the loss of funding signaled just how far local leaders would go in response to the open display of support for Black Lives Matter.
“This has nothing to do with race,” Barron County Sheriff Chris Fitzgerald wrote in a Facebook post on Oct. 19, before going on to say that Embrace supporting Black Lives Matter was advocating for police violence in an area where there’s no way the cops are racist.
“The reason for our non-public withdrawal of our department’s support was due to a request for Embrace to not publicly support any “movement” that supports defunding the police. (I have reviewed 2 articles that show some of these issues are about defunding the police and advocate for violence. While again I got this from the media and I am sure I don’t have the complete picture.)” Fitzgerald wrote.
“There is an attack on law enforcement, but it is not here (in Barron County) and I think these comments by a partner in our department might create that feeling here and I was not ok with that,” he continued. “The counties Embrace serves are not statistically diverse and more importantly, there is no evidence of racism in law enforcement in our local area, again if there was it would not be tolerated.”
The issue was now as big as a local political spat can get. The Washington Post covered it. Fitzgerald’s Facebook post drew more than 250 comments.
What started as a disagreement between an advocacy organization and the law enforcement agencies it works with ended with polarization after everyone involved firmly grabbed the third rail and refused to let go. Embrace was left with its relationships with local law enforcement agencies in varying states of disarray and law enforcement was insisting this wouldn’t affect the treatment of survivors.
Embrace staff members say it undoubtedly has.
Law enforcement is required by Wisconsin statute to provide information about resources to survivors of gender-based violence, and some of that is still happening, but Embrace staff members say the referrals from police are way down from previous years. Staff members say law enforcement agencies have retaliated in other ways as well.
The Washburn County Sheriff’s office edited the Embrace logo out of its referral paperwork. One agency now has chaplains respond to the scene of domestic violence calls, a service that was previously provided by Embrace.
Staff members also say there’s a difference between a cop begrudgingly handing a folder or a brochure to a survivor because it’s legally required and strongly recommending Embrace as an organization that can provide housing, counseling or other aid.
“We’ll still do the referrals because it’s what’s required of us but we’re not going to associate with you publicly, we don’t support you, that kind of thing,” Olson says about how police departments are treating Embrace. “And I would say that’s a lot of what’s going on in Barron County. They’re doing the things that are required of them, handing out a folder, a business card but not publicly associating with us and putting our name with theirs.”
It has also shown up in the numbers. In 2019, the organization helped 998 women across its four counties, many of those clients arriving through direct referrals from police, according to its annual report from that year. After every law enforcement agency in Washburn County walked away from Embrace, they’ve only made five referrals to Embrace in 2021.
For his part, Fitzgerald says Barron County and its sheriff’s office are working to rebuild the partnership with Embrace and provide services to survivors. He pointed to allowing Embrace to again provide services in the county jail as one area that has improved since last fall.
“We’re still working with Embrace, we’re moving forward to continue the partnership,” he says.
He also says he believes Embrace should be able to do whatever it needs to in order to support its clients and that maybe decisions were made too quickly in the heat of the moment.
“It got blown out of proportion a little bit and we probably could have handled it a bit on both sides of the fence,” Fitzgerald says. “I’m not looking to get quoted again and start a war, I was frustrated with some of the things they said and I reacted a certain way and our county reacted a certain way and we could’ve slowed our roll.”
But even as he says the county is working to rebuild its relationship with Embrace, Fitzgerald denies that the accusations of racism — that have been levied at the Kenosha Police Department after the Blake shooting, the Minneapolis Police Department after the Floyd murder or, more recently, the Pasquotank County, North Carolina Sheriff’s Office after the killing of Andrew Brown Jr. — can be applied to his department
Instead, Fitzgerald says, if any of his deputies were discriminatory or racist, it should be reported and he would deal with it. Though he also said racism or discrimination against the small communities of color in Barron County could come from departments he doesn’t control, such as the local police departments, law enforcement in nearby counties or the state troopers that work in the region.
“The national message is a good message to be aware of, it’s not like we don’t have any racism, but if there’s somebody being disrespected by police, I think we would deal with it in a good way,” he says. “The Barron County sheriff’s department isn’t the problem, it’s the local police departments or the state patrol.”
The irony of several law enforcement agencies cutting ties with Embrace is that after adjusting to the change, the organization realizes sending survivors to the criminal justice system may not have been the best method anyway.
In Fitzgerald’s Facebook post, he cited Black Lives Matter’s purported support for defunding the police as a reason for cutting ties for Embrace. Six months later, that decision to cut ties has been the impetus for Embrace “rethinking” its relationship with law enforcement.
“Reporting to law enforcement and getting involved in those systems might be a very good option for some people, but also, it might not be a safe option for a lot of people,” Olson says. “And so I think just trying to rethink the way that the whole anti violence field in general has been very systems based for a very long time — how can we get away from that and how can we present better and more realistic options to survivors?”
Embrace’s board president, Dave Willingham, has been involved with the organization for years, and he says he remembers when the goal was to convince law enforcement to get on board with the Embrace mission. Now, he thinks that may have been a mistake.
“The system has revolved around a law enforcement model, and now we know that there’s another, there’s a better model,” Willingham says. “I feel guilty because I’ve been involved with Embrace for a number of years, and I remember when our goal was to get law enforcement on board. Now we know that’s not what we want. And that’s not what our survivors want, and our philosophy today is we’re moving forward.”
But even as it tries to find ways to support survivors without pushing them toward law enforcement and the criminal justice system as the best or only option, Willingham says the organization is ready to rebuild its partnerships. In lots of circumstances, such as 9-1-1 calls, a partnership between law enforcement and an organization such as Embrace can help services and resources be deployed to the women most in crisis.
“We’re hoping and praying that our partners want to go with us and we’ll keep reaching out to them,” Willingham says. “We’ve stayed at the table that they walked away from. And we’ll stay there and we’ll keep inviting them. But we’re not going to be deterred by whatever their mission is. We’ll stay true to ours.”