For more than a month now, citizens have marched in the streets of communities large and small across Wisconsin. They’re demanding action to address police brutality, racism, justice reform and inequality under the banner of the Black Lives Matter movement sparked by the murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis police in May.
“I think this is an example of the power of people,” says Rep. LaKeshia Myers (D-Milwaukee), chair of the Wisconsin Legislative Black Caucus. “People are taking the time and utilizing their energy to raise their voices about what it is that they wanted to see. I think it took the catalyst of Mr. Floyd being lynched in Minnesota to really spark new folks — mainly white people — to see the atrocities that have been lived by so many generations of African Americans, regardless of their socio economic status, regardless of where they live. I think that was the catalyst that was able to bring them into the movement.”
So … what action has been taken in the Badger state?
With widespread calls for justice — far beyond the city borders of Milwaukee and Madison — Black Lives Matter organizers and protesters have been effective in persuading corporations, local businesses, celebrities and many elected officials to join their fight for equity, reform and justice.
Even Republicans in the U.S. Senate under Mitch McConnell managed to pull together a bill on police reform — albeit dramatically watered down from the proposal Democrats in the House put forward. (Democrats called it “woefully inadequate.”)
Meanwhile, in Wisconsin, state government has largely sat on its hands.
Here’s what has happened in the Capitol: Seeking action, the Wisconsin Black Legislative Caucus sent a letter on June 9 urging Gov. Tony Evers to call a special session of the Legislature on Juneteenth (Emancipation Day, June 19) to address issues of police reform, criminal justice reform and inequality.
Because Republicans controlling the Legislature have gaveled in and out, ignoring previous special-session calls, Evers held off saying he didn’t want this issue mistreated the same way. Instead, on Juneteenth, he unveiled a package of police reform bills that address use of force, dangerous policing practices and violence prevention among other things.
Evers sees these as a starting point.
“The governor’s legislation on police accountability and transparency is a first step toward addressing systemic racism and racial inequities in Wisconsin,” says Evers’ spokesperson Britt Cudaback. “We also know that this must only be a first step — there is more work ahead of us to address racism and injustice, whether it is disparate health outcomes, incarceration rates or the achievement gap.”
Heading into the July 4 holiday, however, there has been no state action. The Legislature hasn’t been in session since February other than one COVID-19 gathering.
Assembly Republican leadership made a public appearance to discuss the topic.
After a night of property damage and violence in Madison on June 23, they held a news conference on the steps of the Capitol where they rebuked the protesters who damaged state property, as well as Evers and Madison Mayor Satya Rhodes-Conway for the lack of a police response during the incidents.
“People have not been held accountable, and that has to change, said Assembly Speaker Robin Vos (R-Rochester) at the press conference. “So we are here to stand with the citizens all across the state who are sick and tired of watching things happen around the state, where protesters are not held accountable. I just got off a telephone call where we had a good conversation with black pastors from throughout the state. And one of the things that we talked about was how do we make the positive change that they want.”
“One of the pastors actually had a great quote,” Vos added, “and he said, ‘Every single person needs to be held accountable, no matter what their skin color or no matter what their job title.’”
Sounds like that pastor was giving a call to action. Myers says the protesters are answering it.
“Protesters have determined that enough is enough,” she stresses. “And they’re going to continue marching until they get the results that they want to see.”
Will the state act?
The state Legislature only met a handful of times this year and has no current plans to meet until the new session starts in January 2021. The final session of the state Senate was delayed by COVID-19 and never rescheduled so adjournment left much of the legislation — even bills the Assembly had passed — to die. Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald is running for Congress while holding onto his leadership post. Meanwhile, there has been nothing but silence from Republican Senate leaders.
When issues of law enforcement and criminal justice came up during the past session there were a few areas of agreement, such as rules surrounding police body cameras. But the biggest partisan battle was between a GOP ‘Tougher on Crime’ package and Democratic reform bills.
When Assembly Republicans were asked if they were considering holding a legislative session to address the root causes that are spurring the protests, Vos said he is possibly looking to “November or December,” in other words, after the elections. He says any session that did take place on these topics would have to be “broader consensus ideas,” adding, “We don’t want it rushed and we also want it to be more comprehensive.” Vos says he has been talking with Myers about it, but not Evers. (He also says Evers had not called him to discuss the damage to state property, adding, “It’s not his style.”)
Vos calls it “extremely unlikely” that there would be any budget repair bill — another potential venue for legislative action given the budget hit from COVID-19.
Assembly Majority Leader Jim Steineke (R-Kaukauna) says he’s also been communicating with members of the Legislative Black Caucus. “Having a session is under discussion” Steineke says, adding it would not be right away but could be “in the coming months, maybe fall.”
On Evers’ set of police reform bills, Steineke indicates he’d prefer something more expansive. “I tend to stand more with the members of the Black Caucus,” Steineke says. “If we’re going to do something, we need something big.”
Evers can still call a special session — and he might. In his June 19 letter, Evers wrote, “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.”
His spokesperson says that remains his latest thought on the topic, with no set deadline at present.
An agenda for action
Despite the vague timing of any potential action to address centuries of inequality, leaders in the policing and criminal justice reform arenas are contemplating potential bills.
In February, the last time a package of bills on police and the criminal justice system came before the Legislature, many of the “Tougher on Crime” bills went in the opposite direction from efforts to reduce mass incarceration and police militarization — the types of reforms Black Lives Matter protesters are seeking.
The Republican package included increased revocation, expanding crimes for which juveniles may be placed in corrections institutions and limiting early release.
One of the most outspoken opponents of many of the measures was Rep. Evan Goyke (D-Milwaukee), a former state public defender who represents a lower-income, predominantly minority district. Since being elected in 2012, he’s authored many criminal justice reform bills — including a package that he and Sen. Lena Taylor (D-Milwaukee) introduced in January to address rising prison populations.
He would like to see a special session start off with police reforms because officers are the entry point into the system and have tremendous control. He recommends three bills by former Rep. Chris Taylor (D-Madison) and Sen. LaTonya Johnson (D-Milwaukee).
Those bills were also highlighted by Evers. His nine bills included an annual report on use of force incidents, prohibiting no-knock search warrants, policies prohibiting the use of chokeholds and increased police training requirements.
“The entire criminal system is based off of information that begins with a police officer,” he says, adding that police have tremendous influence over decisions that play out later in court with prosecutors and judges.
Goyke has wondered if Floyd had survived the police brutality, would he have been charged with resisting an officer?
“I’ve represented dozens if not hundreds of people on that charge … and it is a case, in essence, of a police officer’s word against the individual defendant’s word where often they’re the only two witnesses. Those cases are really frequent and those convictions are really frequent.”
Step two for Goyke would be to address the prison population, including bipartisan bills on non-criminal revocations, earned release and changes to community supervision. But the starting point could be just preserving the status quo — wait, let him explain.
In January of this year Wisconsin had just under 24,000 inmates. In reaction to COVID-19 there has been a moratorium on admissions and revocation and courts weren’t sentencing as many people. So in July there are 21,600, and Goyke bets the vast majority of Wisconsinites had no idea of the drop and felt no less safe — proving, he says, “that we don’t need to incarcerate as many people as we do to keep our population safe.”
Myers says members of the Black Legislative Caucus echo those two priorities, as well as another one Goyke wants to include, which has bipartisan support — marijuana penalty reform. The many bills on that topic now include a GOP bill.
But that’s not where she begins. Myers — a teacher by profession — looks back to the problems’ historical roots: slavery. The first police departments, she points out, started as patrols to catch runaway slaves.
Sen. Lena Taylor has introduced a bill removing legalized slavery from the Wisconsin Constitution for many sessions. It is also, Taylor has pointed out, in the 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution which reads, “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States…”
Taylor says the amendment has been abused by prisons — which incarcerate Black individuals at far higher rates than white individuals in Wisconsin — “to create a slave labor force,” and she wants an end to free prison labor. It’s a charge Politifact rated as ‘mostly true.’
Myers and Taylor also introduced an anti-shackling bill last session forbidding the use of chains to restrain incarcerated women while they are giving birth that never got a public hearing. Another bipartisan police bill that died because the Senate failed to take it up would have banned law enforcement officers from having sexual contact with someone in their custody and provided a penalty.
“Back when Scott Walker was governor, the DOJ [Department of Justice] started the practice of having a registry for police misconduct,” says Myers. “And it’s something that we have. It just needs to be codified into law.”
Myers wants to see the police reform bills Evers has put forward passed, but thinks big picture equity reforms — such as the impact redistricting has on communities of color — are also necessary to change the system. She has watched equity bills die too often in the Legislature, but, she says, she feels things changing.
“This is about equity across the board,” she says. “I think the ear has now turned so that these demands and these requests and these policy changes are not falling on deaf ears any longer, which I’m happy about.
“When you look at people who are marching in the streets they’re multi-ethnic crowds that are there, there are people who are from communities where there’s very, very few African Americans that live in those communities, and … they understand what it means, that Black lives matter. They understand what it means, when people are talking about divesting from police departments and putting more money into community service programs and diversion programming. I think this is something that is very, very different.
“However, this is something that African Americans have been championing since the time of Reconstruction, so it’s a continuation for us. We often just say, ‘Welcome to the party, everybody else.’”
The current lack of session at the Capitol has not kept Black Caucus members from working on equity — Myers says all of them are working with local government in their communities, and encouraging other legislators to work with their local governments.
“So, if there’s not a legislative session that happens at the state level … you can be sure that there will be changes that will be happening in county government, and that there will be changes that are happening at the local level, all working in tandem together.”
Search for GOP courage
Justice reform has grown beyond a partisan issue, with some bipartisan support for a number of bills Former Army Sgt. Rep. Shae Sortwell (R-Gibson) is a leading Republican proponent of some types of criminal justice reform. (No Wisconsin Republicans cosponsored the police use of force bills.)
In his package of bills, Evers included a bill that would require the Law Enforcement Standards Board to track police for use in future employment by Rep. Jim Ott (R-Mequon) and Sen. Patrick Testin (R-Stevens Point). Other potential areas of collaboration could come from Rep. Jeremy Thiesfeldt (R-Fond du Lac) who authored the bill on sexual contact by a law enforcement officer. Or Rep. John Spiros (R-Marshfield), who along with Testin and Democrats advanced the police body camera bill that became law.
As a former police officer for three decades, State Sen. Van Wanggaard (R- Racine) has been sought out by Democrats, including Evers, for potential collaboration.
“Van has had productive conversations with Republicans, Democrats, police and victims groups, including Gov. Evers and AG [Josh] Kaul on shared ideas and ways to move forward on police reform issues,” writes Wanggaard’s spokesman Scott Kelly via email. “There were some areas of agreement with the Governor on some parts of his package, and very strong disagreement with others. I think the Governor understood and respected Van’s positions on disagreements.”
Wanggaard is also working on his own legislation to assess causes and best practices for ‘Use of Force’ events, analyzing them using the method the National Transportation Safety Board uses to prevent crashes.) he hopes to forward in “two or three weeks,” depending on how stakeholders and legislators react. Kelly adds: “Going forward, Van thinks the cornerstones for any police reform bill (or bills), should have the pillars of accountability, community involvement and transparency.”
Some fiscal conservatives want to rein in the exploding costs of prisons as budgets are crushed by the pandemic.
But if Republicans refuse to take up reform before the elections, Goyke says the solution is that in November, the voters can fire them.
“We have this unprecedented moment in American history, at least in my lifetime, calling for action,” says Goyke. “So if the session is called and things don’t happen — or if we have a ceremonial 17-second special session, like we did in the fall over gun policy — it sends in a crystal clear message to communities that [Republicans] are not on your side. And if they’re not willing to do that, then we need to give them a new job.”
Goyke and Myers urge individual Republican legislators to push for change rather than waiting obediently until leaders who are resisting action are ready.
“This is not a Democratic platform, it’s a very human platform, and something that we should all strive to do, and I say this over and over and over again,” says Goyke of police and justice reform. “It is something where other states have found that conservatives and liberals can come together to address many of the systemic issues.”
He adds, “This is it this is a sad truth of what has come to pass in today’s Republican Party in Wisconsin, which is just that [legislators] are not able or willing to go outside of what the speaker sets as the agenda for their party, and for their caucus.”
Myers agrees: “I think we have the capacity to to get things done. I think we just have to have the willingness and agency to actually get it done. And that is something that is not laid at the feet of the members of the Legislative Black Caucus. I think that is something that is laid at the feet of leadership in both of the chambers in the Capitol.”
Evers’ office says he continues to talk with legislators on this topic, while he leaves the hammer of a special-session call — which would further fire up the protesters who are demanding action — hanging in the balance.
“With six months left in the year, there’s plenty of time for Republicans in the legislature to get to work, pass this important legislation, and help us take an important first step toward accountability and equity in our state,” Evers’ spokesperson Cudaback says. “It would be a missed opportunity if Republicans met this movement, and calls for justice, with inaction.”