Rep. David Bowen speaks at a press conference introducing Democratic bills on police reform (Henry Redman | Wisconsin Examiner)
On Wednesday — 388 days since a Minneapolis police officer killed George Floyd and 298 days since a Kenosha police officer shot Jacob Blake in the back — the Wisconsin Assembly took action on police reform, passing four bills that change the laws concerning the transparency, accountability and policies of Wisconsin’s police agencies.
The bills now head to Gov. Tony Evers’ desk and on Wednesday evening he said he will sign them into law — the end point of a long and winding road that Evers, activists and some Democratic lawmakers say did not go far enough to address the state’s problems with racial disparities and police violence.
“These bills are a step, but we must take the next step — and the next step — if we’re going to continue making meaningful progress toward a more just, more equitable and safer state for everyone,” Evers said in a statement. “The people of Wisconsin are demanding systemic change and reform in our state, and there is much more work left to do. So, while I plan to sign these bills, I am also calling on the Legislature to use this momentum and send additional comprehensive legislation to my desk. There’s been plenty of time and ample opportunity. Let’s get this done.”
Last year, after Blake was shot, Evers called for a special session to take up a number of police reform proposals. The Republican-led Legislature rebuffed that effort and Assembly Speaker Robin Vos (R-Rochester) instead announced he’d be creating a task force to negotiate reforms between community members, lawmakers and police.
From the gate, Democrats were skeptical of the task force. That skepticism was validated when emails between Vos and task force leader Rep. Jim Steineke (R-Kaukauna), in which Steineke calls the effort a “political loser,” were made public by Up North News.
Those emails were repeatedly referenced on Wednesday — with derision from Democrats and jokingly by Republicans, including Steineke himself. But the task force marched on, with Rep. Shelia Stubbs (D-Madison), joining the effort, giving it a bipartisan sheen.
After a long and fraught process, the task force produced the bills passed Wednesday.
“Today is a day of progress for our community, for law enforcement, and for the entire state of Wisconsin,” Stubbs said in a news release following the bills’ passage. “These bipartisan bills pave the way for real reforms in our policing system, and will address many of the issues we see in law enforcement today. Through these amendments, and standalone bills, we take a bipartisan step forward to a more equitable Wisconsin.”
The four bills will ban (with some exceptions) the use of chokeholds, require police departments to publish their use-of-force policies online, require the Wisconsin Department of Justice to annually publish data on the police use of force in the state and establish a $600,000 grant program for community-oriented policing.
Activists from Milwaukee and Democratic lawmakers objected to the measures, saying they didn’t go nearly far enough.
“The Wisconsin Legislature has proved yet again that they are putting their own agenda ahead of the people of Wisconsin,” Black Leaders Organizing for Communities (BLOC) wrote in a statement. “BLOC and our partners have spoken out for weeks about these bills and have been very clear that the Task Force recommendations don’t respond to the moment. This moment calls for bold changes, imagination, and courage. What we saw yesterday was lazy, and politically safe.”
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On the floor on Wednesday, this message continued from legislators.
“I want to be transparent for a moment, because what this whole year was building up to [was] for us to be able to accomplish, to go back to the citizens of our state, the citizens across our country that have been asking for significant change,” Rep. David Bowen (D-Milwaukee) said. “After seeing so many incidents, especially in my community — and when you’re so close to those situations, and you witness them time and time again and you’ve put out press releases, time and time again — … to miss that moment is more than disappointing.”
“I really believe that the folks that have been coming together and making up a multiracial coalition, multi-generational coalition of folks asking for change,” he continued, “I don’t think they were asking us for too much.”
Yet even as they said they were disappointed by the bills brought to the floor Wednesday, Democrats largely commended the efforts of Stubbs and community members in their attempt to make progress.
“This task force, really truly, wasn’t taken seriously, at least not by the majority party,” Rep. Jodi Emerson (D-Eau Claire) said. “It was by the community members. It was by my colleague, [Stubbs].”
Democrats pushed for more meaningful changes. On every bill, the Democrats introduced amendments to give the bills more teeth. One measure, now in the Senate, establishes a grant program that would equip every patrol officer in the state with a body camera. But Democrats’ attempt to appropriate money for that program, and the other Democratic amendments were struck down on party line votes.
Frustrated by what they saw as a lack of progress, several Democrats dissented — voting “no” on the bills because they don’t do enough to help the people in their districts.
“None of these even scratch the surface,” Rep. Jonathan Brostoff (D-Milwaukee) told the Wisconsin Examiner after the vote. “They’re below the bare minimum of acceptability, and none of these are going to move the needle as far as making the world a better place. They’re just things that should be the bare minimum, and aren’t. And we want to celebrate being unacceptable? Not me.”
Brostoff points to some of the bills, such as those focusing on use-of-force data collection, chokeholds, and transparency as examples, along with reporting the use of no-knock warrants. “How is that something to celebrate?” he asked. “They should already be keeping data on their functions and we should be able to access that. It’s pretty basic. It’s not a win. A win would be banning no-knock warrants, because it’s a dangerous, violent relic of the failed war on drugs.”
While Democrats fought for amendments, called the bills “crumbs,” and called for stronger reforms, Republicans — some of whom said the bills were just a “step” — patted themselves on the back.
Meanwhile, thousands of Wisconsinites have been taking to the streets to call for change.
A few measures proposed by the task force await action in the Senate and still others, introduced by a coalition of Democrats led by Bowen, await a public hearing. But the Republicans in the Assembly appear to have accomplished what they set out to do.
“My proposal is for us to sit down and figure out some guardrails. Things we could give on, things we wouldn’t,” Steineke said in his August email to Vos. “Then I’d sketch out a plan on how to proceed, making sure it takes some time but yet there will be enough activity to show progress.”
For Brostoff, Steineke’s email became a self-fulfilling prophecy. Something that he called on the floor session June 16 as a “stall until it falls” tactic. “None of these make any sense as far as the context of progress,” said Brostoff, “but it’s exactly what Steineke outlined.”
Speaking directly to Wisconsin residents, Brostoff urges, “don’t accept these games. This is not okay.” He added that, “part of the trick that they’re trying to play on you, and they’re trying to play on our state in general, is to say that the status quo is OK. And they just want you to lose hope, and lose any agency and not do anything about it because you feel so hopeless. So the marching has to stay up, the pressure has to stay up. There has to be just continued pressure until things get better.”
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