Black Lives Matter protesters gather and march to the Milwaukee City Hall. Many called for the removal of Milwaukee police Chief Alfonso Morales. (Photo | Isiah Holmes)
Sens. Lena Taylor (D-Milwaukee) and Van Wanggaard (R-Racine) discussed their package of bipartisan policing bills during a conversation hosted by the Milwaukee Press Club on May 10. The bills cover a range of law enforcement-related policy issues. Some pieces of the package have drawn criticism from residents and activists in Milwaukee.
Taylor explained that her goal for the package “was to try to at least address as many issues as we could on a bipartisan level — to try to address the kinds of things that would bring us real change later. So what you see is our effort to try to bring all of the different opinions together to do something in Wisconsin. And it’s not perfect, but I promise you, I believe it’s better than where we are.”
Wanggaard, a former police officer, stated that some of the bills are still being tweaked and finalized. He added, “These bills didn’t just start with all this news media frenzy that’s been going on the last few months and the craziness around the country.” Asserting that “we’re one of the top states in the United States for policing reforms and for good training aspects, hiring policies etc.,” he said, “So we do it pretty much right, and we’re pretty much the gold standard in most areas. But we can always look at areas that could be critiqued and potentially made to be a bit better.”
Taylor and Wanggaard discussed where their points of view differed and where they overlapped. Their differing perspectives can be seen in the slew of bills the pair have introduced in the Senate. One bill focuses on restricting the use of chokeholds by law enforcement officers; another would require the Department of Justice (DOJ) to compile annual reports on use of force incidents by police. Taylor fashioned a bill making sexual contact between an officer and a person who’s being detained a Class C felony, and mandating that the officer also register as a sex offender. Wanggaard pushed a bill that would decrease the shared revenue of municipalities according to how much they defund law enforcement.
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The package is a mixed slaw of different bills with different aims. Some of the proposed policy shifts lag behind, and could potentially reverse movement at the local level in Milwaukee. Late last week, Milwaukee’s Fire and Police Commission voted to ban the use of chokeholds by police without exception. Wanggaard took issue with the vote.
“If you’re going to use a chokehold, a chokehold is something that could potentially injure somebody. It could ultimately kill them if it’s not applied correctly, or if it’s too long,” said Wanggaard. “So, this is one of those things that if I could draw my firearm out, and I could protect myself or somebody by drawing my firearm out, or if somebody is getting my firearm away from me I could pick up a brick that’s next to me and hit them in the head. I should be able to use a chokehold to, potentially, to protect my life or somebody else’s.” He added that, “I don’t agree with Milwaukee’s policy that now they’re going to accept that. And I think that’s why you don’t see it on the legislation.” Wanggaard believes the bills he and Taylor are introducing will preempt problems with chokeholds. “Why would you want to take away something that an officer could use to save themselves or someone else in that situation that’s actually a life threatening situation?”
Milwaukee could be affected by numerous aspects of the bill package, including the measure discouraging defunding law enforcement by reducing shared revenue payments from the state, an area where the city has seen continuous cuts.
During the FPC meeting which resulted in the chokehold ban, activist Omar Flores of the Milwaukee Alliance Against Racism and Political Repression also pointed to a bill in the package focusing on police and fire commissions. The FPC bill restructures boards, adds training requirements, and pushes for independent monitors to be added to police and fire commissions. It also requires that someone be placed on the commission who is recommend by police and fire unions to represent police officers and fire fighters. That final provision worried many residents who spoke during the FPC chokehold meeting in Milwaukee, who said they fear that the bill threatens the independence of the commission.
Taylor said that, to her, the police and fire commission bill is the most important one being introduced. A rash of settlements and community discontent, she said, have not been adequately addressed in Milwaukee. “One, they can’t even pick a chief. Two, they’ve had to constantly have an executive director who’s answered, it seems, to the mayor versus to the things that the commission believes should be done. And I believe it did not have the community and the common council engaged enough.” (Taylor ran unsuccessfully against Mayor Tom Barrett in 2020.)
Taylor said that while she initially was not supportive of involving police and fire representatives in a commission charged with oversight, she has moved on from that position. She noted that certain appointees on the commission who had relevant experience brought expertise that could benefit the board. “They don’t pick,” said Taylor, speaking of the police and fire unions. “They get to make a recommendation and the mayor gets to pick from that recommendation. I can’t tell you that I fully agree with them being able to have the five choices,” said Taylor. But, she added, “we weren’t able to come to agreement on that. But I do believe that the expertise on the board is a positive.”
Wanggaard pointed to a bill that creates grants for Community-Oriented Policing (COP) houses in certain neighborhoods as crucial. “Creating an environment in really bad neighborhoods,” said Wanggaard, “we’ve done this in Racine by taking over neighborhoods that were held by all of the thugs and drug dealers and just all the bad actors.” He noted that Racine’s COP house had one or two officers who took all the calls in a given neighborhood that were not 911 calls. “It’s to help people problem-solve and to get the community involved in the process of taking back their neighborhoods,” he said.
Both Taylor and Wanggaard conceded that the bills are not cures, but said they serve as bridges between the two sides of the aisle. Wanggaard said that at least four more bills are due to come from the Senate, likely in June. Another eight bills worked on by the Speaker’s Task Force on Racial Disparities, which touch on issues beyond this particular bill package, are also expected.
The task force also had a hand in recommending aspects of the bill package, among them a provision to protect law enforcement whistleblowers. “I don’t know all of what will go through both houses,” said Taylor, “but the bills that the task force did and that we’ve done are the only ones that I can speak to that have bipartisan support, that are in both houses, that, for sure, there’s a depth of support.”
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