Gov. Evers and Legislature address police reform on same day with differing approaches

Evers issued an executive order Wednesday afternoon directing state law enforcement to update its use of force policies

Wisconsin State Capitol Police car in front of Wisconsin Capitol. (Photo: WI Department of Administration)
Wisconsin State Capitol Police car in front of Wisconsin Capitol. (Photo: WI Department of Administration)

Gov. Tony Evers issued an executive order Wednesday afternoon directing state law enforcement to update its use of force policies. 

The order came shortly after the Assembly Speaker’s Task Force on Racial Disparities subcommittee on law enforcement policies and standards came out with its recommendations. The governor’s order only binds agencies managed by the state, which are the Capitol Police, the Wisconsin State Patrol and the Department of Natural Resources Division of Public Safety and Resource Protection.

In his order, Evers stated that “ensuring law enforcement use of force policies reflect community expectations is a first step toward accountability and transparency.” He also requires that officers who engage in or witness a use of force report it, and that no one who makes such a report or testifies on it in a whistleblower capacity can face firing, demotion or any other discrimination for that action.

Gov. Tony Evers from his media briefing 5/14/20
Gov. Tony Evers

Evers and the Republican legislative leaders have been publicly at odds over issues of policing accountability and transparency for nearly a year.

The governor’s order is a requirement, while the Assembly task force recommendations merely request that legislation be drafted and passed by the Legislature. The task force did not go nearly as far as a package of bills that Evers, Lt. Gov. Mandela Barnes and the Legislative Black Caucus put forward in June 2020 during nationwide protests over the murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin.

At the time Evers gave the Legislature several months to act, and when it did not, he called for a special session in August 2020 after Jacob Blake was shot and permanently injured by Kenosha police. The Legislature also ignored the special session. Evers then included those proposed bills in his 2021-23 biennial budget.

The Joint Finance Committee is finishing up hearings on the next budget this month, but the co-chairs have already said they plan to throw out Evers’ budget and use the last budget as the base for the next budget. 

Asked whether the governor’s executive order is in response to the recommendations of the task force — and an indication that he feels the report did not go far enough, his spokesperson Britt Cudaback replies, “The governor remains hopeful Republicans will take up the policing accountability and transparency measures included in his Badger Bounceback agenda.” 

THE MORNING NEWSLETTER
Subscribe now.

His measures are stronger. To wit: While the task force calls for limiting chokeholds, the governor calls for stopping their use.

Rep David Bowen with Gov. Tony Evers 2/2019 Black History Month celebration in the Capitol rotunda, via Evers on Flickr. Black History Month Rotund
Rep David Bowen with Gov. Tony Evers 2/2019

Rep. David Bowen (D-Milwaukee) described the order — which echoes language from legislation he authored in 2019 — as requiring law enforcement to work “in a manner that will prohibit dangerous techniques, allow the use of deadly force only as a last resort, and highlight that the primary duty of law enforcement is to preserve the life of individuals.” That bill — coauthored by Sens. LaTonya Johnson (D-Milwaukee) and Lena Taylor (D-Milwaukee) and then-Rep. Chris Taylor (D-Madison) also stated that when force was used it should be the least amount of force necessary to address the threat.

Had that bill passed, Wisconsin would have already accomplished much of what the task force discussed on use of force, as the bill would have required the Law Enforcement Standards Board to develop a model use of force policy for law enforcement agencies that addressed interactions with individuals with mental disorders, alcohol and drug problems, dementia and developmental disabilities to limit the use of force against vulnerable populations.

Showcasing a lack of trust that Republicans will take bold steps voluntarily toward police reforms, Bowen called on county executives, police and fire commissioners in municipalities and local university police departments in Wisconsin to follow Evers’ lead, particularly directing the use of force as a last resort.

“By instituting this Executive Order, Gov. Evers has signaled his commitment to advancing reforms in policing, even if Legislative Republicans continue to throw up roadblocks on the road to a more just system,” said Bowen.

Majority Leader Jim Steineke at news conference on 9/8/20.
Majority Leader Jim Steineke announcing the Task Force on Racial Justice on 9/8/20.

Assembly Majority Leader Jim Steineke (R-Kaukauna), a task-force co-chair along with Rep. Shelia Stubbs (D-Madison), suggested in an email to Speaker Robin Vos last August that the task force on racial disparity be formed even though the issue is a “political loser” to capitalize on “an opportunity to show how Evers could get things done if his admin weren’t so damned political” while “We could also make some inroads with voters we don’t normally reach. Worse case scenario, we show a willingness to work on these issues and make the Democrats say no to things.”

Sen. Van Wanggaard (R-Racine) expressed skepticism toward even the mild recommendations from the task force, saying in a statement: “To the extent there are new legislative ideas, I will review them with an open mind and hope we will reach agreement. However, I will not support anything that jeopardizes public safety or the safety of our law enforcement officers.”

In contrast, Wisconsin Professional Police Association executive director, Jim Palmer, issued a strong endorsement of the task force recommendations, calling them “a meaningful step forward in strengthening policing and the relationship between law enforcement and the communities it serves.”

James Palmer head shot
Jim Palmer, executive director, Wisconsin Professional Police Association

Palmer added, “If enacted, these measures will serve to increase law enforcement transparency and accountability, enhance the training and qualifications officers need to meet the demands of their profession, and provide local governments with more resources to better serve the public. We strongly support these measures and urge state lawmakers to act on them as soon as possible.”

Groups representing Wisconsin’s sheriffs, deputies and jail officers were less enthusiastic in response to the task force report. The Badger State Sheriffs Association and the Sheriffs and Deputy Sheriffs Association put out a statement saying it appreciated the task force’s work, adding, “Our organizations will continue to support policies that increase training, utilize best practice, and promote public safety transparency for all Wisconsin residents.”

Responding to the task force subcommittee’s recommendations, Vos thanked the members for their service and concluded: “These certainly are not easy issues to discuss, but this subcommittee brought together community members and law enforcement to lay the groundwork for bipartisan legislation. I look forward to seeing those bills introduced for consideration by the legislature.”

Melanie Conklin
Melanie Conklin is proud to be a native of the state of Wisconsin, which gave humankind the typewriter, progressivism and deep-fried cheese curds. Her several decades in journalism include political beats and columns at Isthmus newspaper, the Wisconsin State Journal and other publications. When not an ink-stained wretch, she served time inside state, local and federal government in communications. She is excited to be back at the craft of journalism as Deputy Editor of the Wisconsin Examiner. It’s what she’s loved ever since getting her master’s degree in journalism from the UW-Madison. Her family includes one husband, two kids, four dogs and five (or more) chinchillas.