On the anniversary of George Floyd’s murder, one lawmaker says moderate change is “not appropriate for this moment in history.”
Exactly one year after George Floyd’s murder by a then-Minneapolis police officer prompted nationwide protests over police brutality and systemic racism, a handful of bipartisan police reform bills are making their way through Wisconsin’s Republican-controlled Legislature.
But to some Democratic lawmakers, the moderate reforms—which would only make changes deemed palatable to police organizations, like increasing the amount of data collected on use-of-force incidents and partially banning chokeholds—do not go nearly far enough after the historic period of demonstrations demanding fundamental change to policing.
“We need significant change right now,” said Rep. Jonathan Brostoff (D-Milwaukee). “It’s not an issue of, ‘Oh, we can just beat around the bush and have some incremental change.’ That’s not appropriate for this moment in history.”
Absent from the bipartisan proposals are measures to ban qualified immunity, which makes police officers virtually impervious to liability in civil lawsuits; ban no-knock search warrants, a tactic that resulted in the killing of Breonna Taylor, an unarmed Black woman, in Louisville, Kentucky; and prevent officers accused of misconduct from easily finding a job in a neighboring agency. All were common demands from protesters throughout the last year.
Brostoff, Rep. LaKeshia Myers (D-Milwaukee), and Rep. Supreme Moore Omokunde (D-Milwaukee) have introduced bills that would fulfill those demands.
“Those who are not upholding their part of being a law enforcement officer, we want to make sure that they are not a threat to citizens,” Moore Omokunde said.
Brostoff said he worried the incremental, bipartisan bills will hurt momentum because they will provide a false sense of progress.
Sen. Lena Taylor (D-Milwaukee), who joined Sen. Van Wanggaard (R-Racine) to introduce a seven-bill package, has repeatedly acknowledged fellow Democrats—and herself, to an extent—are not satisfied with the little progress that stands to be made with the proposals from herself and Wanggaard.
However, she says, minimal improvement is still a small victory.
“For those that say this is not bold enough, I’m not gonna argue with people about that,” Taylor said last week in an Assembly committee hearing on some of the bills. “But what people cannot say is that we’re in the very same place and that the space that we move to does not move us to a better place.”
Four of Taylor and Wanggaard’s proposals passed the Senate earlier this month. They would require the state Department of Justice (DOJ) to publish an annual use-of-force report; establish DOJ grants for community-oriented policing houses like those seen in Racine; require police departments to publish their use-of-force policies online; and force changes on the Milwaukee and Madison police and fire commissions.
Still waiting for a vote are bills to prohibit police from using chokeholds except in life-or-death situations, require officers to report unjust uses of force by colleagues and extend whistleblower protections to those who file such reports, and create an independent use-of-force review board.
Other bipartisan proposals come from the Speaker’s Task Force on Racial Disparities, which Assembly Speaker Robin Vos (R-Rochester) formed last August after the shooting of Jacob Blake by Kenosha police. In an internal email written last year, task force co-chair and Assembly Majority Leader Jim Steineke (R-Kaukauna) said he wanted to “figure out some guardrails” for the task force before it began, implying Republicans never intended to implement anything beyond slight changes.
Brostoff said the task force’s recommendations—which address a much broader swath of topics than Wanggaard and Taylor’s bills, but fall short of sweeping reforms—show Steineke was successful in limiting the efficacy of the group.
Rep. Shelia Stubbs (D-Madison), Steineke’s co-chair on the task force, has publicly defended the work the committee did over a seven-month period.
“Within our seven months we captured as much as we could to come forward with,” Stubbs said in a Friday task force meeting.
One task force recommendation that addresses issues beyond the scope of Taylor and Wanggaard’s package is for the state’s Law Enforcement Standards Board to be able to decertify officers who are fired or resign amid an investigation into alleged misconduct, or commit domestic abuse.
Moore Omokunde’s bill would go a step further and also automatically decertify officers who violate their department’s use-of-force policy. Officers could be reinstated under the bill by a civilian board. He said the overall goal is to prevent officers from being shuffled around departments in the same vein as the Catholic Church’s shuffling of priests involved in sex-abuse scandals.
Locally, Moore Omokunde pointed to Joseph Mensah, a former Wauwatosa police officer who killed three people in five years. The Milwaukee County district attorney did not file charges in any of the shootings, but Mensah was suspended last year, and the Common Council, mayor, and an independent investigator recommended his firing. Mensah resigned before being fired. Two months later, Mensah was hired as a sheriff’s deputy in neighboring Waukesha County.
Had Moore Omokunde’s bill been in place, Mensah would have been decertified because he resigned before his review was complete.
“They may reinstate you,” Moore Omokunde said, referring to the process outlined in his bill. “However, that decision would still be in the hands of citizens who are not necessarily connected to law enforcement.”
Because the task force addressed decertification, Moore Omokunde said he’s hopeful his bill could get bipartisan support.
Myers’ bill would ban no-knock warrants and restrict other search warrants to the hours of 6 a.m. to 10 p.m. Taylor, the woman killed in the botched no-knock raid in Louisville, was shot six times in the middle of the night.
Myers could not be reached for comment.
The Democratic bills’ fates are unclear, as they may make changes that Republicans and police groups oppose. The bipartisan proposals are at various stages in the Legislature, with some of Taylor and Wannggaard’s bills having passed the Senate and being subject to Assembly hearings.