Police reform bills — but no session — mark Juneteenth

Gov. Evers turns down the Black Legislative Caucus, but offers an alternative proposal and a package of potential bills

Hand draw Juneteenth Freedom Day flag in vector format. Flag with words Emantipation Day for poster. Juneteenth symbol background. Concept design. Getty Images
Hand draw Juneteenth Freedom Day flag in vector format. Flag with words Emantipation Day for poster. Juneteenth symbol background. Concept design. Getty Images

Ten days before the Juneteenth holiday, on June 9, the Wisconsin Legislative Black Caucus sent a letter to Gov. Tony Evers asking him to call a special session specifically on June 19 to pass bills tied to racial justice and police reform.

“At this session, we wish to convene to discuss and enact pertinent legislation aimed at reforming our justice system at the state level,” wrote Rep. LaKeshia Myers, chair of the Wisconsin Legislative Black Caucus in the June 9 letter. The rest of the Assembly Democrats echoed this call in a letter of support on Wednesday.

On Friday June 19, Evers sent a letter in response, far too late for holding any kind of session, saying “this is the moment for action,” but rejecting the Black Caucus’ request for a special session — at least for now.

Over the past year, Republicans rejected Evers’ call for a special session on gun control (gaveling in and out to open and close the session in mere seconds). They ignored a request for a session on school funding. And while they took a few of his requested bills for a special session the governor called on agriculture, they rewrote them and mostly substituted their own — and never got most of them passed through both houses before the session ended in March. 

Mandela Barnes and Tony Evers in Milwaukee
Mandela Barnes and Tony Evers in Milwaukee (Photo by Dylan Buell/Getty Images for VIBE)

Evers’ letter, cosigned by Lt. Gov. Mandela Barnes, recalled this past treatment of important issues as his reason for rejecting the Black Caucus’ special session request. (Evers’ office ignored multiple requests to comment on potential sessions or legislation this week for articles.)

His release stated, “ … one thing is crystal clear: 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. We should not need a special session when people across our state are demanding we take action. We are committed to working with Republican leadership, committee chairs, and other members of the Legislature to find common ground on these issues, and we know you are, too.”

Common ground?

The list of topics that Republicans have refused to work on with Evers to find common ground is even longer than the list of rejected special sessions. And a recent battle over an Evers staff member taping a phone conversation with the Republican leaders without their knowledge has left the two branches at another low point in their relationship.  Things started off badly with the 2018 GOP lame duck session focused on taking powers away from the governor and attorney general after Evers and Attorney General Josh Kaul were elected but before they were sworn in. The bad feeling lingered as Republican leadership has taken the Evers administration to the Wisconsin Supreme Court to block its authority on mail-in elections and issuing Safer at Home orders for the COVID-19 crisis.

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In an interview late Thursday, before Evers’ official response, Myers stressed the importance of Juneteenth as a call for a session that would be a day of action in the Legislature.

Rep. LaKeshia Myers (Photo by Isiah Holmes)
Rep. LaKeshia Myers (Photo by Isiah Holmes)

“Look at June 19, 1865, which was two and a half years after [the official Emancipation Proclamation], when the last of those that were in bondage were finally notified of their freedom” she said, “the significance is having a special session on Juneteenth, which is widely known as African American Independence Day.”

That said, she has been in conversations with Evers’ office and says she understands why he did not call a special session.

“I think when you look at the governor’s perspective, I can understand where he’s coming from with regard to calling a session and not having it be a political football, because this is not about politics for us. This is bigger than politics.”

Myers has also had conversations with Speaker Robin Vos about potential collaboration. “He seemed amicable, and open to conversation,” she said. “You know, I’ve not talked to Sen. Fitzgerald, about it, but hopefully he understands the magnitude of this moment. This is about doing some actual real work.”

“This is not just a moment,’ she adds. “This is a movement.”

Rep Lakeshia Myers (Photo by Isiah Holmes)
Rep Lakeshia Myers (Photo by Isiah Holmes)

In his letter, Evers committed to calling a special session if voluntary collaboration doesn’t work.

“As we move forward, if there is an unwillingness to do this important work, conversations with legislative leaders break down, or there are talks of delays until the next legislative session, as governor, I am ready and willing to use my power to call on the Legislature into special session to act,” he wrote. “We must do better. We must continue to do the hard and uncomfortable work of dismantling the institutional oppression that exists in our state and our country.” 

Bills: chokeholds, no-knock and transparency

This package of bill drafts that Evers offered as “the first step toward dismantling the systems we’ve created,” contains many bills that are very similar to legislation that a number of Democrats have been pursuing — without success, as Republicans refuse  to even hold public hearings on these bills — for years. 

Noting the dismal marks that Wisconsin gets in racial disparities “from infant mortality to child poverty, educational attainment to employment, and homeownership to incarceration,” Evers said in the release, “Our country promises the opportunity of justice and equity, and it’s time for us to deliver on that promise.” 

“We know we don’t have all of the answers—no one does,” he added. “This legislation is a first step toward dismantling the systems we’ve created.

Barnes, Wisconsin’s first African American lieutenant governor, added, “We continue to lose far too many Black lives, be it from inequities in criminal justice and policing, in health care, or in economic well-being.” 

“The social and economic consequences of these deep-seated inequities reach every community in our state,” Barnes added, “and eliminating them will require action at every level of government. Passing these bills is one piece of how we move closer to accountability, equity, and justice for all.”

Below are the bill drafts — and descriptions from Evers’ release — that make up the executive package of bills.  (LRB is short for Legislative Reference Bureau, the agency that drafts bills and here it indicates the bills are new drafts that have not yet received a bill number.)

LRB 6273: 

    • Establishes statewide use of force standards for all law enforcement agencies that includes 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;
    • Prohibits 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.
  • LRB 6274:
    • ​Requires each law enforcement officer to annually complete at least eight hours of training on use of force options and de-escalation techniques.
  • LRB 6275: 
    • Creates a $1,000,000 grant program, administered by the Department of Justice, to fund community organizations that are utilizing evidence-based outreach and violence interruption strategies to mediate conflicts, prevent retaliation and other potentially violent situations, and connect individuals to community supports.
  • LRB 6276: 
    • Requires law enforcement agencies to develop policies prohibiting the use of chokeholds.
  • LRB 6277:
    • Requires each law enforcement agency to not only prepare a policy regarding the use of force by its law enforcement officers, but to make it available publicly online.
  • LRB 6281: 
    • Creates 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; unlawfully discriminate against the person; cause the person to feel harassed, humiliated, or embarrassed; cause the person to be expelled from a place in which the person is lawfully located; damage the person’s reputation or standing within the community; or damage the person’s financial, economic, consumer, or business prospects or interests.
  • LRB 6283: 
    • Requires that the Department of Justice publish an annual report on use of force incidents, including incidents where there was a shooting, where a firearm was discharged in the direction of a person (even if there was no injury), and where other serious bodily harm resulted from the incident; and
    • Requires certain demographic information to be collected about each incident and reported annually by DOJ on its website. 
  • LRB 6289: 
    • Prohibits no-knock search warrants.
  • LRB 6292:
    • Makes certain changes to the responsibilities of the LESB [Law Enforcement Standards Board], including requiring LESB to also regulate jail and juvenile detention officer training standards and regulate recruitment standards for the recruiting of new law enforcement, jail, and juvenile detention officers;
    • Requires each law enforcement agency to maintain an employment file for each employee; and
    • Requires each potential candidate for a position in an agency, jail, or facility that is or has been employed by a different agency, jail, or facility to authorize their previous employer to disclose his or her employment files to the hiring entity.