Rep. Shelia Stubbs (D-Madison) joins activists and community leaders Aug. 31, 2020, at the Capitol in calling for lawmakers to act on police reform bills. (Photo © Andy Manis)
Rep. Shelia Stubbs (D-Madison) joins activists and community leaders Aug. 31, 2020, at the Capitol in calling for lawmakers to act on police reform bills. (Photo © Andy Manis)

Citizen members say they remain committed to the work.

Rep. Shelia Stubbs had the chance during a Friday press conference to offer her thoughts on the future of Assembly Speaker Robin Vos’ Task Force on Racial Disparities, which she co-chairs. 

Instead, she remained silent for 15 seconds, refusing to answer. A Democratic staffer then abruptly ended the news conference. 

The awkward exchange between Stubbs and a reporter with UpNorthNews occurred when Stubbs was asked to assess the effectiveness of the task force moving forward in light of this week’s publication of an email in which her fellow co-chair, Assembly Majority Leader Jim Steineke, referred to leading the task force as “a political loser.” Steineke also said the task force could be used to make Democrats look bad while giving the illusion of Republicans being open to reform.

Steineke has granted interviews to other media to defend his email after UpNorthNews first published the story on Wednesday, but he has ignored requests for comment from UpNorthNews. Stubbs has not spoken publicly about the email. A handful of Democratic politicians across the state have thrashed Steineke, but many have remained silent like Stubbs.

Despite the silence from elected officials, UpNorthNews contacted all 29 citizen members of the task force. While most either did not respond or declined to comment, five offered varying assessments of the task force’s future when reached for interviews.

Tory Lowe, a Milwaukee-based victims’ advocate, said he was ultimately happy the email came out because he can now “be the person that I wanna be” in the task force’s law enforcement subcommittee. Lowe said he saw it as proof Republicans were disingenuous from the start, and that he views the email’s publication as an opportunity.

“I love it, because now you can start holding these people to the fire, not [just] accusing people,” Lowe said. “You can use this material to get things done if you know what you’re doing.”

Jim Palmer, executive director of the Wisconsin Professional Police Association, said he is not deterred by the email or the task force’s ability to make a difference in the state. He described the discussions brought up at meetings as “meaningful, insightful, and uninhibited.”

He gave credit to both Steineke and Stubbs for creating the type of environment to make that happen. 

“Rep. Steineke and Rep. Stubbs have worked to foster the kind of constructive dialogue on racial disparities and policing that we simply haven’t had before in this state,” Palmer said.

The task force meetings have hosted deep discussions regarding police tactics and disparities in education and workforce development. In the most recent law enforcement subcommittee meeting, members debated at length issues such as body-camera policies, gun-draw reporting, and statewide use-of-force policies, and were able to come to general consensus on most issues.

“I think in the beginning they probably thought, ‘This ain’t going nowhere, we’re just gonna do this for shits and giggles,’ for lack of a better term,” said Pam Holmes, a Black retired Milwaukee police sergeant. “But now people are genuinely interested and have thoughts and ideas. Now it’s like, okay, maybe we can do something with this.”

Holmes, who is also the founder of the Council on Floyd, a social justice group formed after George Floyd’s murder by Minneapolis police, said the email left her “frazzled.”

“Even if they thought they were just going to string us along, they can’t do that now,” Holmes said.

Wayne Strong, a Black retired Madison police lieutenant, said he was surprised and disappointed by the email. Strong said he never had any feeling that Steineke was in the task force for the wrong reasons.

“I really got the impression that he was in this because he was genuinely concerned about making the reforms we need,” Strong said. “I’m not saying that he’s not, but that email certainly disappointed me in a pretty big way.”

Strong also said he never felt like the task force was being constrained by “guardrails.”

“I think the beauty of this is … there’s been an exposure, and I think that going forward it’s kind of a good thing,” Strong said. “Now that this is out, I think it’s kind of like, ‘Okay, now we can really get to what’s at the heart of the issue here.’”

Steineke sent two emails, which UpNorthNews has obtained, to task force members on Wednesday in the hours after the August email was first published. He wrote that he has “the utmost confidence in this task force” and said he remained confident in its prospects.

“As I am certain you are all likely aware at this point, an email I sent to the Speaker of the Assembly late last summer has been reported in the media,” Steineke wrote late Wednesday afternoon. “To the extent that this has been a distraction for our common goal of finding consensus around issues like the ones we have been discussing, I apologize for that.”

He also addressed his feeling of the task force being “a political loser.”

“While in the email I reference politics, the purpose behind that message to the Speaker is to convey the fact that we needed people involved that weren’t concerned about political ramifications one way or another,” Steineke said.

Orlando Owens, a Black minister and former Republican Assembly candidate from Milwaukee, said he’s “not a fan” of Steineke’s email, but that he believes Steineke has good intentions and simply should have written the email with a better tone.

“I think that email reflects just a lot of the concern [members had early on],” said Owens, who was involved in the task force’s formation but was officially made a member later on. “Everybody had to have some apprehension from the start. This task force, this conglomerate of people, had never really come together before.”

Owens said he still believes the task force can propose some necessary reforms.

“Obviously I want this thing to be successful, so I’m not going to be totally disheartened by the email,” Owens said. “I still think there’s hope for the task force to come together.”

Jessica VanEgeren contributed to this story.