Law enforcement bills, some targeting Milwaukee, flood the Assembly floor

Measures reinforce policy divides between the two sides of the aisle

By: - January 27, 2022 6:45 am
Emergency lights on a us police cop car arrest

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Among the dozens of bills that flowed across the Assembly floor Tuesday, one theme remained clear. For Republican elected officials, more police officers arresting and detaining more people for longer stretches of time is the best way to help struggling communities. Under Republican proposals some areas, particularly Milwaukee, could see their independent authority to govern public safety policies fade away.

A bill that would prohibit municipalities from banning no-knock search warrants became a  flashpoint during Tuesday’s Assembly floor session. Rep. Ron Tusler (R-Harrison), argued that no-knock search warrants are needed in order to ensure the safety of officers. He also blamed the controversy around no-knock warrants on the death of Breonna Taylor in Louisville, Kentucky in March 2020.

“The circumstances of her death were politically used and abused,” said Tusler, arguing that the raid on her home was not a no-knock warrant. Taylor’s death was a matter of investigation, which led to one officer being charged with wanton endangerment for firing not into Taylor’s apartment, but into her neighbors’ home. When attempting to enter her home, officers received fire from her boyfriend, who said he didn’t hear officers announce themselves. Other witnesses also initially said they didn’t hear officers announce themselves but later walked back their accounts of what happened. The bill appeared to be a response to Milwaukee’s Fire and Police Commission (FPC) having banned no-knock raids in the city late last year. The bill passed on a 58-34 vote in the Assembly.

Rep. LaKeshia Myers
Rep. LaKeshia Myers

Rep. LaKesha Myers (D-Milwaukee), who became a voice for the effort to ban no-knock warrants, denounced the bill as “nothing more than a political ploy to drum up [the] base for Republican supporters and those who believe law enforcement is correct 100% of the time,” she told Wisconsin Examiner. “It does not address the underlying issues with regard to no-knock search warrants. History has taught us that police did NOT request the practice of no-knock warrants and the practice was even outlawed at the federal level. However, most police officers today have only known life WITH no knock warrants at their disposal.” Myers noted that Tusler’s bill, “to date, has laid dormant — no hearing, no discussion, no action,” prior to the Tuesday floor session.

The search warrant bill was just one of numerous law enforcement and incarceration-focused bills that have been pushed by Republican legislators. Nineteen were passed mostly along party lines on Tuesday in the Assembly. Another 13 law enforcement and corrections-related bills passed the Senate earlier in the day, with the Assembly concurring later in the day.  They covered a gamut of policies, from legislation increasing existing penalties for criminal offenses to creating new avenues of funding and compensation boosts for law enforcement and corrections, to waiving fees for state park visits by law enforcement officers, to a bill affecting the structure of Milwaukee’s FPC.

The bill concerning the Milwaukee police and fire departments, AB-114/SB-117, was introduced by Rep. Janel Brandtjen (R-Menomonee Falls) and four other Republican representatives, along with bipartisan co-sponsors Sen. Van Wanggaard (R-Racine), Sen. Lena Taylor (D-Milwaukee), and others. It imposes new standards for police and fire commissions, some of them limited to a “first-class city,” singling out Milwaukee, and others that apply to a “second-class city” — Madison.

The bill would require mayors to choose one police and fire commissioner each from lists provided by police and fire unions. In Milwaukee, it specifies that when the commission appoints a three-member panel to hear and try a complaint against police or fire personnel, one panelist must have fire or police experience. It meshed with the search warrant bill as a GOP effort to shape and influence Milwaukee’s FPC, and the city as a whole.

Rep. Ron Tusler

In her Tuesday floor speech, Brandtjen urged that police and fire personnel have their say in what happens on the commission. “And this is a simple request, that they have the ability to have one person on that police and fire commission to give their side of the story,” said Brandtjen.

“Milwaukee is unique and should be allowed to operate as any other municipality, with independence,” Myers told Wisconsin Examiner, speaking of the search warrant bill. “I am continually amazed that lawmakers from the rest of the state are only concerned about Milwaukee’s municipal policies when it comes to how we allocate funding and how we choose to govern.”

Brandjten also argued that the bill’s police and fire board changes were needed to ensure police and fire personnel are properly trained. At a public hearing this past June, she tied images of “a lack of safety, real or imagined” in Madison and Milwaukee to their economic success. “It is absolutely required that these cities are in a position to attract the finest law enforcement candidates and begin the process of providing a safe environment for all citizens, including tourists, investors, and of course, employees,”  she said then.

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Rep. David Bowen (D-Milwaukee), however, pointed out that local municipalities have concerns about maintaining the independence of their commissions. At the same time, he said,  “you also have [community] organizations that have serious concerns with this bill.” He urged that legislators vote against the bill, “so that discussions can continue and that the attacks of trying to get in the way of local government and allowing them to figure this out on their own, even in partnership with the state, we don’t need to dictate that with this bill.”

Rep. Janel Brandtjen (Screenshot | Wisconsin Eye)
Rep. Janel Brandtjen (Screenshot | Wisconsin Eye)

Several groups registered against the bill, including the American Civil Liberties Union, the city governments of both Madison and Milwaukee, the League of Wisconsin Municipalities, as well as the League of Women Voters of Wisconsin and Planned Parenthood Advocates of Wisconsin. Organizations including the Wisconsin Professional Police Association, Wisconsin Chiefs of Police Association, Milwaukee Police Association, and Americans for Prosperity all registered in favor of the bill.

At the same time, Americans for Prosperity, a libertarian conservative advocacy group founded by the Koch brothers, also joined the ACLU, the city of Milwaukee, the Sierra Club, and five other groups in registering against the Senate version a Republican-backed riot bill. Americans For Prosperity registered neutral for the bill’s Assembly counterpart.

The proposed legislation would make it a Class A misdemeanor to attend a riot as defined by the legislation and would criminalize blocking or obstructing a thoroughfare while participating in a riot. Those who “knowingly participate in a riot that results in substantial damage to property or personal injury,” under the bill would face a Class I felony. In registering against the bill, Americans For Prosperity said the organization “fears this well-intended legislation would have a chilling effect on the lawful exercise of free expression and could be inappropriately applied by government officers in a partisan or otherwise biased manner.”

Rep. Francesca Hong (D-Milwaukee) drew attention to opposition from eco-groups to the ACLU. “The act of protest in and of itself is a right written into the constitution of this state, and this country, to give all people a direct tool that allows them to bring forward important matters, issues, grievances, that through other democratic means have been ignored by their government,” said Hong. “Protest is democracy. This bill being brought forward by my friends across the aisle is a declaration of war against the First Amendment.” She called it “nothing less than an attempt to undermine the very foundations of democracy. Something that seems to have been the main focus for my friends in the Republican party as of late.”

Rep. Francesca Hong (Screenshot | Wisconsin Eye)
Rep. Francesca Hong (Screenshot | Wisconsin Eye)

Like many others, Hong pointed out that the bill’s penalties are very broad and even vague. “It purposely blurs the line between valid protest and a riot,” she said.  “It reminds me of something scribbled up, hastily turned in when asked to maybe provide a record of some sort.” She stressed that, “it’s unimaginable how such a law could even be enforced fairly, at that. With this language, a political argument on the street could be cause for an arrest. If that isn’t censoring or canceling, I don’t know what is.”

Republican officials countered that the bill is aimed at violent behavior, invoking days of unrest in Madison and Kenosha in the summer of 2020 as examples. The unrest in Kenosha captured the world’s attention as businesses burned, and police clashed with protesters in the streets. By the end, two people were killed and another injured by now-18-year-old Kyle Rittenhouse, who arrived along with other members of milita-style organizations to confront protesters and guard property. Rittenhouse was found not guilty of the killings in a Kenosha County court. In Madison, store fronts were damaged, and historical statues around the Capitol were torn down.

Rep. Barbara Dittrich (R-Oconomowoc) said the bill is necessary and that it “clarifies the difference between our First Amendment rights to protest and rioting.” She went on to say, “Mr. Speaker, because people can’t act like civilized human beings and let their voices be heard, but have to descend into destruction, violence, even domestic terrorism with the amount of fear that they invoke in people … this behavior has got to stop. People deserve to feel safe in their work place, in their homes, without physical threat of violence.”

An example of a challenge coin distributed within the Kenosha Police Department following the unrest in August, 2020. (Photo | Kenosha Police Department)
An example of a challenge coin distributed within the Kenosha Police Department following the unrest in August, 2020. (Photo | Kenosha Police Department)

Rep. Shae Sortwell (R-Two Rivers) also pushed back against the legislation’s opponents, asking why residents should be allowed to be violent and burn down buildings. “And we shouldn’t have laws against this?” Sortwell recalled that when the bill first came through committee, he had First Amendment concerns about its language. After adjustments, Sortwell stated he’s more comfortable that the bill is of sound language. However, many critics of the bill have highlighted that, in fact, violence, property destruction, and stealing are already penalized under current laws.

The riot bill ultimately passed the Assembly on a 59-34 vote, though Democrats expect Gov. Tony Evers to veto the legislation. Another bill increasing the penalties for damaging historically significant property also passed 59-33. The spree of law enforcement-related bills didn’t halt there.

Some bills saw more unity among the two halves of Wisconsin’s Legislature, such as a bill to decriminalize fentanyl testing strips in Wisconsin. Fentanyl is a driving force behind overdose deaths across the country, with Wisconsin recording 8,488 overdose deaths between 2014 and 2020. Over 6,000 of those deaths involved opioids.

For weeks, addiction recovery advocates, law enforcement officials, and both Republican and Democratic representatives have pushed for the bill, and Tuesday the Assembly passed the Senate version on a voice vote. It was a rare plot of common ground for Democratic and Republican legislators. Contentious debate, however, remained the theme for many of the other bills. Rep. Dora Drake (D-Milwaukee) rose for the first time this session to speak against a bill pushed by Rep. Joe Sanfellipo (R-New Berlin) that would revoke parole or extended supervision for a person who is charged with a crime, but not yet convicted.

Drake, who worked as a pre-trial case worker, highlighted the bill’s projected cost. “The reason why the estimated cost of this bill is so high is because it would have to build a new prison to accommodate the influx of individuals who would be revoked,” she said. “Public safety is not locking people away for crimes that they are charged of, and not convicted. Rather it is making sure our local municipalities have the resources to provide public safety resources.”

Rep. Dora Drake (Screenshot | Wisconsin Examiner)
Rep. Dora Drake (Screenshot | Wisconsin Examiner)

Democrats offered an amendment to put funds towards increasing the state’s shared revenue with local municipalities, ensuring that those who are released don’t have firearms, as well as other initiatives like victim services. “The estimated cost of our amendment was roughly $90 million,” said Drake. “So, from a fiscal standpoint, it appears that would be actually more fiscally responsible for the state and we would save $140 million.”

Speaker Robin Vos attempted to eclipse Drake with his own support for the bill, as did several other GOP legislators. Vos argued that if asked, most people would feel that if you commit another crime while on probation, “you should go instantly back to prison.” He later mentioned referenced a factory he owns in Whitewater, which has used the labor of hundreds of incarcerated people through a work program. “The vast majority of them are good decent people who made a stupid mistake,” said Vos. “But … every one of them understands that if they are out on probation, and if they make a mistake, they are going right back to prison. But the way the current system is being operated, that’s not the expectation for a lot of criminals nowadays.”

Vos admitted, “yes this bill spends some money. But the way it spends money is saying that if you go back to jail because you committed a crime, the taxpayers are going to pay for your room and board.” Like many of the other bills, the bail revocation bill passed on a 56-37 vote. Both Rep. Rachel Cabral-Guevara (R-Appleton) and Rep Michael Schraa (R-Oshkosh) joined Democrats in voting against the bill.

Speaker Robin Vos talks about his factor that used labor from incarcerated people through a work program, while advocating for the parole bill introduced by Rep. Joe Sanfelippo. (Screenshot | Wisconsin Eye)
Speaker Robin Vos talks about his factory that used labor from incarcerated people through a work program, while advocating for the parole bill introduced by Rep. Joe Sanfelippo. (Screenshot | Wisconsin Eye)

It wasn’t the only corrections-related bill that made its way to the floor. Along with a flurry of bills to help stimulate recruitment for police departments, Republican-crafted bills also sought to find ways to boost the number of correctional officers in prisons and jails, as well as address chronic overtime and staffing shortages. A bill to end state prohibition against using billboards to advertise correctional jobs passed with voice votes both the Senate earlier Tuesday and the Assembly later in the day. Other bills focused on increasing penalties for battery of a correctional officer or use of pepper spray by a Department of Corrections employee also passed. One bill even aimed to establish fee waivers for law enforcement employees for fishing, hunting, and state parks.

Several of the bills also drew from American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) funds, with Republican lawmakers arguing that emergency responders and correctional officers only want results, and don’t care where the money comes from. Gov. Tony Evers has repeatedly vetoed GOP-backed legislation directing how the federal pandemic relief money would be spent.

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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, the Progressive Magazine, Al Jazeera, and other outlets. He was also featured in the 2018 documentary The Chase Key, and was the recipient of the Sierra Club Great Waters Group 2021 Environmental Hero of the Year award. The Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council also awarded Holmes its 2021-2022 Media Openness Award for using the open records laws for investigative journalism. Holmes was also a finalist in the 2021 Milwaukee Press Club Excellence in Journalism Awards alongside the rest of the Wisconsin Examiner's staff. The Silver, or second place, award for Best Online Coverage of News was awarded to Holmes and his colleague Henry Redman for an investigative series into how police responded to the civil unrest and protests in Kenosha during 2020. Holmes was also awarded the Press Club's Silver (second-place) award for Public Service Journalism for articles focusing on police surveillance in Wisconsin.

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