Evers says he’ll sign the bills, but he, legislative Democrats, and organizers say the state needs deeper reforms.
Wisconsin will soon have a handful of police reforms enacted after state lawmakers last week passed four bills based on recommendations from the Assembly Speaker’s Task Force on Racial Disparities formed after the police shooting of Jacob Blake in Kenosha.
The bills, passed more than a year after the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis and 10 months after Blake shooting, will prohibit chokeholds except in life-or-death situations, require public access of departments’ use-of-force policies, require the Wisconsin Department of Justice (DOJ) to compile reports on use-of-force incidents, and allocate $600,000 in grant funds for establishing Community Oriented Policing (COP) houses.
Democrats overwhelmingly voted for the bills, but many also said they want them to act as a first step. Republicans have championed the reforms, despite concerns from the other side of the aisle and activists that they don’t go far enough. Gov. Tony Evers said in a statement that he will sign the bills, but that further reforms are needed.
“The people of Wisconsin are demanding systemic change and reform in our state, and there is much more work left to do,” Evers stated.
Shortly after former Minneapolis Police Officer Derek Chauvin murdered Floyd, Evers and Lt. Gov. Mandela Barnes released a police reform package but the Republican-led Legislature did not take it up. Then, after the Blake shooting, Evers called a special legislative session to take up the package, but the Legislature gaveled in and out without discussion.
Instead, Assembly Speaker Robin Vos (R-Rochester) formed the Speaker’s Task Force on Racial Disparities, co-chaired by Rep. Shelia Stubbs (D-Madison) and Majority Leader Jim Steineke (R-Kaukauna).
“This task force was able to produce real, bipartisan results thanks to the input we received from community members, activists and members of the law enforcement community—something we all should be proud of,” Steineke said in a statement after the bills passed.
But during Wednesday’s debate over some of the bills that came out of that task force, several Democrats objected to the bills on the grounds that the process was “rigged.”
“A rigged process creates rigged results,” said Rep. Jonathan Brostoff (D-Milwaukee). “I will not co-sign a process that has been rigged from the start.”
Brostoff and Rep. Jodi Emerson (D-Eau Claire) referenced an UpNorthNews story on emails regarding the task force exchanged between Steineke and Speaker Robin Vos (R-Rochester) in which Steineke said they would “figure out some guardrails” and “sketch out a plan on how to proceed, making sure it takes some time but yet there will be enough activity to show progress.”
“I truly think if we do this right we have an opportunity to show how Evers could get things done if his [administration] weren’t so damned political,” Steineke wrote. “We could also make some inroads with voters we don’t normally reach. Worse [sic] case scenario, we show a willingness to work on these issues and make the Democrats say no to things.”
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Emerson said that while she “applaud[s] the task force and the work they did,” she felt like the process was “slow-walked” and “not taken seriously.”
“Most of us know that the task force was an excuse to kick the can down the road,” Emerson said.
The Assembly did not take up a task force bill the Senate approved that would have set requirements for departments’ use-of-force policies and provided whistleblower protections for officers who report officer misconduct. Steineke said the bill was not ready for a final vote, but legislators and activists angrily responded they believe it was pulled because law enforcement agencies balked.
“The same agencies that the community is holding accountable for racial biases in profiling and using excessive force, even unto death, are the very agencies dictating how accountable they will be held to tax-paying citizens,” said ReBecca Burrell, a Milwaukee activist and citizen member of the Speaker’s Task Force. “Law enforcement has been calling the shots on all of these bills, and the renege on AB 108 proves it.”
Evers echoed Rep. David Bowen’s (D-Milwaukee) sentiment that the bills did not go far enough and asked that the Legislature take up Bowen’s “Enough is Enough” package of bills which has been endorsed by Milwaukee activists.
Bowen reluctantly voted for all but one of the bills on the Assembly floor, even after Republicans voted down his proposed amendments. For a bill to study no-knock warrants, Bowen wanted to require law enforcement to wear their uniforms when conducting a no-knock warrant.
Emerson endorsed the proposal, pointing out that when strangers burst into someone’s home in the middle of the night, they don’t assume that they’re law enforcement.
“The risk is just too great for everyone involved,” Emerson said.
The amendment was tabled by the Republican majority.
Rep. Supreme Moore Omokunde (D-Milwaukee) raised an objection to the chokehold ban, pointing out that the language said “unless an officer feels they are in danger.” Omokunde predicts that that exemption will result in officers continuing to use chokeholds and defend it by saying they feared for their life.
“What does this bill actually do on the use of chokeholds? Nothing,” said Omokunde. “What are we going to do to change the perception of black and brown people as threats by police?”
Evers also pushed to have bills that were in administration’s police reform package taken up, which would require officers to undergo use of force and de-escalation training, open up civil action for individuals who call the police on individuals that are acting within their rights and a $1 million grant for community violence prevention programs.
As of Monday, no action has been taken on either Evers’ nor Bowen’s bills.