Chalk on the sidewalk near the Dane County Courthouse. (Henry Redman | Wisconsin Examiner)
May is Mental Health Awareness Month. By order of a joint resolution passed by the Wisconsin Legislature last week, it’s also Law Enforcement Appreciation Month.
But don’t think for a minute that now is the time to bring those two topics together and try to do something to stop people in the grip of a mental health crisis from shooting police officers.
That’s what happened in April, when Glenn Douglas Perry shot and killed Chetek police officer Emily Breidenbach and Cameron police officer Hunter Schell, opening fire with an AR-15 during a traffic stop in Barron County. Perry’s ex-wife had accused Perry of domestic violence and of stalking and harassing her, and told investigators she thought he was schizophrenic, carried guns in his car, slept with a gun under his pillow, and talked “to stuff that was not there.”
Perry had been prohibited from possessing firearms more than a decade earlier because of a mental health commitment. But that order expired in 2011.
A friend told investigators Perry mentioned “something in a text about killing someone,” the AP reported. He also said he didn’t like getting “harassed and pushed around by police,” and that he would open fire if he got stopped while driving and felt threatened.
Perry’s father said the family had recently been trying to get him committed again. Police knew his mental state was deteriorating and that he was armed, dangerous and itching for a fight. But since the Wisconsin Legislature has repeatedly rejected a proposed red flag law supported by 81% of voters and police departments all over the state, there was nothing to be done except issue an internal police warning to officers to use caution when dealing with Perry. That, it turned out, was not enough.
The slaying of Breidenbach and Schell and the recent shooting deaths of Milwaukee police officer Peter Jerving and St. Croix officer Kaitie Leising came up on the floor of the Assembly last week with the resolution recognizing May as Law Enforcement Appreciation Month.
Rep. Todd Novak (R-Dodgeville) introduced the resolution, declaring, “I am very fortunate to be from a rural area where law enforcement are revered, respected. They’re our friends and our neighbors.”
Throughout Wisconsin history, “over 300 officers have tragically paid the ultimate sacrifice and have died in the line of duty,” Novak said. “Today, I’d like to express my tremendous gratitude for [their] sacrifice and service … and my continued support for those law enforcement officers still selflessly serving the communities all across Wisconsin.”
Rep. Deb Andraca (D-Whitefish Bay), a cosponsor of the resolution, spoke up next, adding what Novak had failed to mention: “2023 has been the deadliest year for Wisconsin police in over two decades.”
“Acts of appreciation like this joint resolution are important. But actions speak louder than words,” Andraca said. “How can this Legislature express appreciation for the men and women in law enforcement when the majority party actively seeks to pass laws that put their lives in even more danger than they already are?”
Andraca, a substitute teacher in Milwaukee’s North Shore suburbs and a volunteer with Moms Demand Action, ran for the Assembly in 2020 on the issue of tackling gun violence and flipped a Republican seat. Since taking office, she has tried repeatedly to help pass bills that would close the gun show loophole, expand background checks, and allow courts to confiscate a person’s guns under an extreme risk protection order — the so-called “red flag law.” All of these measures have been buried by Republicans who refuse to debate gun safety.
The text of the joint resolution that passed the Assembly last week urges Wisconsinites to show their support by sending cards and saying thank-you to their local police officers.
“Sending a card is nice,” Andraca said in her floor speech, “but holding a public hearing on legislation that will keep our first responders safe would give police officers the ability to be more safe.” Instead of just passing resolutions of appreciation, the Legislature should step up and do something about the plague of gun violence that is making policing so dangerous. “We’re the only people who can — the people in this room,” Andraca said.
As obvious as her point was, it enraged Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, who immediately took to the floor to castigate Andraca for daring to take a resolution “honoring the brave men and women who have given their lives” and turn it into “a political diatribe.”
Stabbing his finger in the air, Vos accused Andraca of delivering “a speech about some public policy agenda that drives a wedge right between the very people who are trying to unite us.”
Then he launched directly into his own diatribe.
“It has been tragic over the course of the past three or four years,” Vos said. “Because you know what the biggest threat to the police officers are? Defunding the police and activism on the left. That is the single biggest problem.”
Republicans in the chamber roared their approval.
Here’s some helpful context: As Dan Shafer of Recombobulation Area points out, Vos and the Republicans are the ones who have been defunding police departments across the state since long before “Defund the Police” became a protest catch phrase. In 2018-19, after nearly a decade of Republican cuts to state aid for local governments, more than 250 Wisconsin municipalities had to cut police spending.
In his floor speech, Vos touted the current GOP shared revenue plan as a huge boost in funding for police — although that deal is very much up in the air with loud public dissent coming from both Democrats and the Republican-controlled Senate. Democrats had better vote for it, Vos said, “to put actual action behind the empty rhetoric that so often is offered by the people on the left.” Then he thanked the Republican sponsor of the police appreciation resolution for “doing something that is honorable, standing up and saying thank you to brave men and women who, right now, all across our state are taking a chance every day with being killed, with being maimed, with being injured. That’s the real sacrifice that’s given. And I think all of us should just adopt the resolution …”
Left unsaid is the presumption that being a small town cop — or really any unfortunate bystander anywhere in the state of Wisconsin — must necessarily carry the risk of having your head blown off by someone who has already been identified as violent and delusional, and who is nonetheless armed with an assault rifle.
Not just “the left,” but a huge majority of Wisconsinites disagree with that assumption and believe it’s time to take steps to reduce the risk.
Republicans love to talk about mental health whenever there’s a mass shooting (and while it is not officially Mass Shooting Month, we already had more than 40 of them across the U.S. by the middle of May).
Mental health in this context makes for a convenient change of subject for Second Amendment absolutists who like to pretend that easy access to firearms is completely unrelated to the ever-increasing number of murders on street corners and in schools, churches, movie theaters and grocery stores.
Searching for a way to put more money into mental health services, Democrats have sometimes gone along with bipartisan efforts that tie that funding to gun violence.
It’s misleading, since it avoids the first step to reduce gun violence, which is to stop making weapons of murder easily available to every self-styled Rambo in America.
In fact, the relationship between mental health and gun violence is exactly the opposite of what the gun lobby would like you to believe. As the Rev. Libby Howe of the Wisconsin Council of Churches writes in the council’s newsletter this week, polls show that mass shootings are a significant source of mental distress for young people and adults alike. People who live in areas where a mass shooting or gun violence is happening report severe post-traumatic stress symptoms. And according to the CDC, most gun deaths are suicides committed using handguns — usually by people with severe depression and a gun in the house.
“So, not only are people with mental illness NOT responsible for gun violence against others, we have evidence that it is the other way around!” writes Howe. Even though, as a person with mental illness and a person of faith, she strongly supports increasing resources for mental health, she believes it’s dishonest and a mistake to allow public policymakers to substitute mental health funding for addressing access to firearms as the source of gun violence.
Likewise, legislators who wrap themselves in a resolution honoring the police, while deliberately putting police officers in harm’s way — and then shriek that it’s disrespectful to bring up real safety protections as part of that resolution — are simply gaslighting us.
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