Policing bills focus on use of force, transparency and whistleblower protections

By: - May 19, 2021 11:12 am
Sen. Lena Taylor (center) and Sen. Van Wanggaard (right) testify on the policing bills before the Committee on Government Accountability and Oversight. (Screenshot | Isiah Holmes)

Sen. Lena Taylor (center) and Sen. Van Wanggaard (right) testify on the policing bills before the Committee on Government Accountability and Oversight. (Screenshot | Isiah Holmes)

Four policing policy bills which are part of the bipartisan package pushed by Sens. Lena Taylor (D-Milwaukee) and Van Wanggaard (R-Racine) got a hearing before the Assembly’s Committee on Government Accountability and Oversight Tuesday. The senators and members of law enforcement answered questions about the bills, which touched on use-of-force policies, chokeholds and whistleblower protections for officers.

“The relationship between certain communities and the police did not deteriorate overnight,” Wanggaard told the committee, “and it will not be fixed overnight.” Wanggaard said that the bill package was designed around the principles of police accountability, community involvement and transparency. He hopes legislation built around those principles will “rebuild our relationship between the police and the people that they serve. The bills before your committee today focus on two of those principles —  accountability and transparency.”

Members of the Committee on Government Accountability and Oversight question the senators. (Screenshot | Isiah Holmes)
Members of the Committee on Government Accountability and Oversight question the senators. (Screenshot | Isiah Holmes)

AB-108 requires law enforcement personnel to report use-of-force incidents that they witness to their own departments. “It also requires the police department to have a policy on when and how to report the use of force. And importantly, this bill also provides whistleblower protection to officers who report a use-of-force incident.”

Taylor stressed that “the public should understand the circumstances under which use-of-force incidents should be reported, and so should officers.” Additionally, she said, “we need to ensure that all officers understand the process on how to report an incident, and not fear departmental retaliation for speaking up when they share use-of-force violations. And repeated and highly publicized incidents of questionable police use of force require that we get this right.”

“AB-108 should be non-controversial, to me,” Taylor said. “Maybe not to everybody, but I believe that it’s not partisan and not controversial.” Repeating something her father often said, Taylor declared, “You cannot expect what you do not inspect.” She hopes that AB-108, “gives us the ability to say what we expect and how we’re going to inspect.”

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Wanggaard mentioned that work is being done with Assembly Majority Leader Jim Steineke (R-Kaukauna) to define use of force as it pertains to this particular bill through the Speaker’s Task Force on Racial Disparities. Steineke, who co-chairs the task force, discussed in emails with Speaker Robin Vos how to best use the task force to gain political capital last August, during protests in Kenosha over the police shooting of Jacob Blake. In part of the exchange Steineke suggested, “my proposal for us is to sit down and figure out some guardrails. Things we could give on, things we wouldn’t.”

The racial disparities task force has offered input and recommendations on the various law enforcement bills pushed by Taylor and Wanggaard. Members of the committee had a variety of questions on the bills, including on the use-of-force definition still being hashed out by the task force.

Sen. Lena Taylor (center) and Sen. Van Wanggaard (right) testify on the policing bills before the Committee on Government Accountability and Oversight. (Screenshot | Isiah Holmes)
Sen. Lena Taylor (center) and Sen. Van Wanggaard (right) testify on the policing bills before the Committee on Government Accountability and Oversight. (Screenshot | Isiah Holmes)

“It comes down to, I believe, that it is about using that force necessary to take a person into custody,” said Wanggaard. “As we look at how our DAAT (Defensive and Arrest Tactics) use-of-force continuum actually flows, and that’s ever-changing … and best practices with dealing with a person that’s on fentanyl versus a person who’s maybe on marijuana. So all these things will help that fluctuate, but it basically comes down to that DAAT continuum that has been identified as, I think, pretty much the gold standard for being clear on what use of force really is.”

Wanggaard has praised Wisconsin’s training and hiring standards for law enforcement in recent weeks as some of the best in the nation. “We can’t legislate common sense,” said Wanggaard during the hearing. “Hopefully we’re going to get that in our recruiting process with the recruits that we bring in …  the common sense and great training. Which, we are blessed in Wisconsin to have a bureau of training and standards that is one of the best in the country. And so we need to keep that funded so that the training continues and we get good officers who are trained to where they should be.”

The senator, who is a former law enforcement officer, explained that the DAAT continuum flows from verbal commands to fisticuffs, “and accelerates all the way through that and up to using a lethal firearm.” Essentially, “it’s about using that level of force … so that you can take the situation back under control.” Joining the pair at the table was Rep. David Bowen (D-Milwaukee), who testified in favor of the bills, particularly AB-108 and AB-110. The latter piece of legislation deals with mandating that police agencies make their updated use-of-force policies publicly available.

The role of the police in our society has been under a microscope since the killing of George Floyd by the Minneapolis Police Department in May, 2020. Local Policing is an ongoing series analyzing the culture, tactics and actions of departments big and small across Wisconsin. If you have a story to share about your local police, reach out to reporters Isiah Holmes and Henry Redman at [email protected] and [email protected]

AB-110 is complementary to AB-109, which aims to increase the amount of information departments collect about use-of-force incidents. Specifically, AB-109 requires the state Department of Justice (DOJ) to collect data and publish annual reports on use-of-force incidents involving officers, including but certainly not limited to police shootings. The bill also requires that demographic information be collected regarding each incident, along with  other detailed information.

Aspects of the bills have drawn criticism, such as AB-134 which focuses on the use of chokeholds. The bill mandates that law enforcement agencies not authorize chokeholds in their own use-of-force policies, but gives a broad exception for use in life-threatening situations or for self-defense.

Milwaukee’s Fire and Police Commission (FPC) recently voted to ban the use of chokeholds without exception by city police.

Some committee members also wondered if the whistleblower protections in AB-108 were strong enough. Specifically when it comes to instances where officers who report their peers are left in risky situations without support or protection from retaliation.

“These bills are by no means the end and more need to be allowed passage by this body that address the real root cause of this issue,” said Bowen during the hearing. “Nonetheless, we must continue to have tough but bold conversations about reforming our policing practices to make sure that these instances of police brutality are no longer happening in our communities.” Bowen expressed his belief that the public safety system “can evolve to address real-world demands of what communities truly need to thrive.”

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Isiah Holmes
Isiah Holmes

Isiah Holmes is a journalist and videographer, and a lifelong resident of Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Holmes' video work dates back to his high school days at Wauwatosa East High, when he made a documentary about the local police department. Since then, his writing has been featured in Urban Milwaukee, Isthmus, Milwaukee Stories, Milwaukee Neighborhood News Services, Pontiac Tribune, and other outlets.

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