Gov. Tony Evers announced last week a package of legislation he says will increase accountability and transparency in Wisconsin policing.
Evers made the announcement on Juneteenth, which is celebrated annually to commemorate the end of slavery in the United States, and in the wake of the murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, the governor's office stated.
The governor said Wisconsinites were calling for justice and equity for black Americans.
"Our country promises the opportunity of justice and equity, and it's time for us to deliver on that promise," Evers said. "We know we don't have all of the answers - no one does. This legislation is a first step toward dismantling the systems we've created, but it can only be a first step."
Evers said racism and racial disparities can't be solved with any single bill or package of bills, or person.
"It's on all of us, together," he said. "We must meet this movement with our empathy and our compassion, but most of all we must meet it with action."
According to the Evers administration, Wisconsin is consistently ranked as one of the worst states in the country for racial disparities in a wide range of indexes, including infant mortality, child poverty, educational attainment, employment, homeownership, and incarceration.
In addition, the administration says, the COVID-19 pandemic has illustrated disparities in health outcomes as black Wisconsinites only comprise 6.7% of the state's population, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, but account for nearly a quarter of Wisconsin's COVID-19 deaths.
Lt. Gov. Mandela Barnes said the state continues to lose far too many black lives, whether from inequities in criminal justice and policing, health care, or economic well-being.
"The social and economic consequences of these deep-seated inequities reach every community in our state and eliminating them will require action at every level of government," Barnes said. "Passing these bills is one piece of how we move closer to accountability, equity, and justice for all."
Evers and Barnes also called for bipartisanship.
"Calling another special session where legislative leaders come in and gavel in and gavel out risks us losing this incredible moment in history where we can and should be able to work together to get something accomplished," the two state leaders said. "We should not need a special session when people across our state are demanding we take action."
The package of legislation includes a bill that would establish statewide use of force standards for all law enforcement agencies. Those standards would emphasize that the primary duty of law enforcement is to preserve the life of all individuals; that deadly force is to be used only as the last resort; that officers should use skills and tactics that minimize the likelihood that force will become necessary; that, if officers must use physical force, it should be the least amount of force necessary to safely address the threat; and that law enforcement officers must take reasonable action to stop or prevent any unreasonable use of force by their colleagues.
The bill also prohibits the discipline of a law enforcement officer for reporting a violation of a law enforcement agency's use of force policy and requires the Law Enforcement Standards Board (LESB) to develop a model use of force policy for law enforcement agencies.
Among the other bills is legislation requiring each law enforcement officer to annually complete at least eight hours of training on use of force options and de-escalation techniques, as well as a bill that would create a $1 million grant program to fund community organizations that utilize evidence-based outreach and violence interruption strategies to mediate conflicts.
Another bill would prohibit the use of chokeholds and still another would create a civil cause of action for unnecessarily summoning a law enforcement officer with intent to infringe upon a right of the person under the Wisconsin Constitution or the U.S. Constitution.
Finally, the package would prohibit no-knock search warrants.
Democrats were effusive about the package of bills.
Rep. Shelia Stubbs (D-Madison) said the legislation would interrupt violence, change policies about the use of force by law enforcement, build on the work of the Law Enforcement Standards Board, and strengthen accountability measures.
"These policies are about preventing violence," Stubbs said. "They are about preserving humanity. As such, these legislative measures go beyond political debate. We enthusiastically support the governor and lieutenant governor in passing this necessary package of legislation."
Stubbs was especially happy Evers included in the bill Stubbs' own "End Racial Profiling in Wisconsin" bill, which would establish a civil cause of action for damages against a person who calls a law enforcement officer with the intent to discriminate against them, humiliate or embarrass them, or to damage their reputation, their standing within the community, or their financial prospects.
"We are in pain," she said. "Our youth is in pain. And they are reaching out to us. It is past time for the Legislature to come together and pass bills addressing police reform. The bills in this package of legislation will save lives, and build the foundation for justice in our state."
State Rep. David Bowen (D-Milwaukee) was also effusive.
"On the same day that I stood with fellow members of the Black Caucus on the top of the Capitol building to watch the Juneteenth flag fly over the Capitol for the first time in history, Gov. Evers put forth a package of bills whose contents we have been championing throughout our elected service as back legislators," Bowen said. "I applaud Gov. Evers for addressing the concerns of the Black Caucus and taking actionable steps that reform policing in Wisconsin and increase transparency."
The Black community is still struggling with the legacy of racism within legal structures and everyday life, Bowen said.
"The protests of the past three weeks have shown lawmakers that it is long overdue to change the status quo, and we can no longer meet systemic racism with inaction," he said. "Several of these bills are proposals that I have introduced in previous sessions that would make our communities safer by saving lives and lowering costs, but Republicans have not joined me in my efforts."
Bowen said Evers has signaled he is willing to work with Republicans to make policing practices more equitable and transparent, and he said he hoped Republican legislators would hear the call of the protestors and put politics aside to come to the table.
State Sen. Van Wanggaard (R-Racine) was more cautious. He said he supported some but not all of the ideas.
"In the past, I have co-sponsored some of the bills supported by the governor today," Wanggaard said. "Those bills enhance public confidence in the police and codify existing practice, while preserving public safety and the safety of officers. For the same reason, I have adamantly opposed some of these bills because they perpetuate false impressions of law enforcement and jeopardize the safety of officers and the public."
At the end of the day, Wanggaard said, the goal of both law enforcement and the law is the safety of all citizens, regardless of race, creed, color, or sex.
"That is the standard I will continue to use to evaluate these bills and all police reform bills going forward," he said.
Richard Moore is the author of the forthcoming "Storyfinding: From the Journey to the Story" and can be reached at richardmoorebooks.com.
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