Racial disparities task force releases first recommendations

Recommendations fall short of previous racial justice proposals while co-chair says “the work does not end here.”

Protesters gather in Kenosha the second night of protests on August 24th, 2020. This was before the clashes with police later that night. (Photo by Isiah Holmes)
Protesters gather in Kenosha the second night of protests on August 24th, 2020. This was before the clashes with police later that night. (Photo by Isiah Holmes)

The Wisconsin Assembly task force on racial disparities released its first report Wednesday from the law enforcement subcommittee, recommending 18 legislative actions to set statewide rules for law enforcement policies and rules. The recommendations include increased data collection of controversial police practices, creating requirements for how police respond to instances of excessive force and providing body cameras to all Wisconsin police officers.

The task force was created by Wisconsin Assembly Speaker Robin Vos’ (R-Burlington) in response to widespread calls for racial justice after the police murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis and the shooting of Jacob Blake in Kenosha last year — instead of taking action on proposals by Gov. Tony Evers and the state’s Legislative Black Caucus. 

Evers called for a special session of the Legislature the day after Blake was shot by a Kenosha police officer but lawmakers never convened and took no action.

The task force has been split into two subcommittees, one addressing law enforcement policy co-chaired by Reps. Jim Steineke (R-Kaukauna) and Shelia Stubbs (D-Madison), and the other focused on education and economic opportunity. 

The law enforcement subcommittee wrapped up its work on Tuesday with a lengthy debate over establishing a statewide standard for law enforcement use of force

“I am incredibly proud of the bipartisan work we’ve done to have the hard conversations that will make a difference in the lives of people of color in Wisconsin,” Steineke said in a statement. “As we all know, this issue can be incredibly polarizing, yet we have succeeded in bringing the community and law enforcement voices to the table and finding consensus where available and moving forward, together.” 

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The release of the recommendations comes one day after ex-Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin was found guilty for murdering Floyd. 

“We had many tough conversations over the past seven months, but I am proud we took the time to give these issues adequate consideration, and reach consensus on a variety of topics,” Stubbs said in a statement. “However the work does not end here. In order to address systemic racism, we need all hands on deck. This task force is proof that Democrats and Republicans can work towards bipartisan reform, and better serve the people of Wisconsin.”

The subcommittee’s recommendations cover a wide range of police rules and policies but in many cases don’t go as far as previous Democratic proposals. They also do not address qualified immunity, a federal doctrine that shields public employees from some civil liability that police critics say protects bad cops. An appendix in the report notes that the Legislature can’t change the federal rule but also that the subcommittee couldn’t come to consensus over how to change immunity rules at the state level. 

Democratically controlled states, such as New Mexico and Connecticut, have moved to curtail the doctrine at the state level but it remains federal law. 

Concrete recommendations the report does address include establishing a duty to report and duty to intervene for police officers who witness a colleague using excessive force. It also recommends creating whistleblower protections for cops who come forward. 

However, those measures require state statute to include a standardized definition of legal use of force in order for officers to know when the law is being broken. The subcommittee couldn’t agree on what a statewide use of force standard should be. Without those pieces working in tandem the duties to report and intervene would be ineffective, Steineke said at Tuesday’s meeting. 

Two controversial police tactics, chokeholds and so-called no-knock warrants, are also addressed in the report — although recommendations don’t go as far as previous proposals. 

The report recommends that the Wisconsin law enforcement agencies’ use of force policies prohibit the use of chokeholds that restrict a person’s oxygen, with some exceptions. The report states that officers should be able to use chokeholds in life-threatening situations or in self-defense. 

No-knock warrants, which gained national attention after the police killing of Breonna Taylor in Louisville last year, are currently allowed under Wisconsin law. Instead of outright banning the warrants, which allow police to execute a search warrant on a home without first knocking on the door, the report suggests collecting data on how often law enforcement agencies in Wisconsin are granted no-knock warrants. 

The report also suggests requiring the Wisconsin Department of Justice to collect statewide data on how often law enforcement officers use force. The federal government already has a program to collect this data but some agencies, especially smaller departments, have not participated, citing the costs of such data collection and management. 

Also included in the report are measures that attempt to hold officers accountable for unlawful actions. These recommendations include the statewide implementation of body cameras, creating standardized personnel files to track officers in a record that would be partially available to the public, making it easier for the Law Enforcement Standards Board to decertify officers who break the law or are kicked off the force and the establishment of a statewide independent use-of-force review board. 

The review board would work separately from local police and fire commissions and be made up of a diverse group of permanent members plus members from the community involved in the incident being investigated. The board would assess incidents and release a report suggesting ways to improve police policies. 

The report also suggests creating more rules and training requirements for cops who work in schools, the expansion of COPS grants aimed at better community policing, and greater psychological testing of people applying to become police officers. It also recommends more state money be given to crisis intervention programs for behavioral health professionals to respond to mental health crises instead of just a police response.

The other subcommittee does not have any future meetings scheduled and Vos has said the task force would have legislative recommendations by “early 2021.”