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Why Is Police Reform So Difficult In Wisconsin?

Protesters in Milwaukee in 2020
Courtesy of Samer Ghani
Protesters march through downtown Milwaukee on May 30, 2020.

Tuesday marks one year since the murder of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer. That murder was the catalyst for a summer of protests across the country, including here in Wisconsin.

Since the murder of George Floyd and the police shooting of Jacob Blake in Kenosha, the call to rethink the way police do their jobs has been heightened. And at least in Wisconsin, action has been slower than some would like.

>> WUWM Series — Policing In Wisconsin: Has Anything Changed Since Last Summer's Protests?

Democratic Rep. Sheila Stubbs says that in Black communities, it’s a discussion that’s been happening for centuries. “This is just a historical conversation that connects all the way back from slavery to the war on drugs, how that has impacted Black community,” she says.

Stubbs, a former probation and parole officer, co-chaired the Speaker’s Task Force on Racial Disparities. She says there are a number of reasons why police reform is difficult to accomplish. But Stubbs says a major problem is the lack of diversity on police forces and in elected government.

“When I advocate for me, it’s a different place then someone else who’s trying to tell me about me. So, it’s about having you in that room because I truly believe that if you’re not in that room, you’re on the table; and if you on the table, you on the menu; and if you on the menu, you’re subject to change. And guess what, the change is going to happen,” she says.

In the end, the task force submitted 18 recommendations in the hope that the Republican-controlled state Legislature will pass some of them into law. They include banning chokeholds in some situations and providing body cameras to all Wisconsin police officers.

However, some Democrats want more. The recommendations do not include a complete ban on police use of chokeholds and no-knock warrants or bring an end to qualified immunity. Stubbs says she has heard the criticism but doesn’t believe people, including other lawmakers, understand the reality.

“Progressives would say this isn’t far enough. That’s fine. But we have nothing, absolutely nothing on the books. Democrats, we are in the minority. We don’t control the calendars, we don’t control the agendas, our bills aren’t being voted on. This is the most that we can get, and this is bipartisan,” Stubbs says.

Democratic state Rep. Jonathan Brostoff authored a bill that would end qualified immunity in Wisconsin. That’s when police officers are essentially protected from being sued by people who claim that an officer violated their rights. The task force made no recommendation on this.

Brostoff says the biggest deterrents to police reform have been police officers and police unions. “There’s just kind of a significant knee jerk reaction against any sort of mechanism for accountability for police that I find extremely troubling. And I think that that’s probably an area where we need to allow for more oversight and more conversation about what the profession is,” he says.

Jim Palmer is the executive director of the Wisconsin Professional Police Association. He says it’s not that the reactions are knee jerk, but they are highly complex and emotional.

“They’re emotional obviously for communities of color and communities that are affected by these use of force incidents and affected by what they see in terms of police conduct. And it’s emotional for law enforcement officers because you know you have officers who have answered a calling to put the safety of others ahead of their own. They take very personally criticisms of that,” Palmer says.

Palmer says the biggest barrier to change over the years has been the inability of all sides to get over the emotion involved and actually talk to each other and not at each other.

“One of the biggest problems with not having that broad based dialogue is that it just contributes to the polarizing nature of the discussion. And if you just have people on either side you’re just increasing the chances that we’re not going to see any change, we’re not going to move forward in a way that benefits the public and law enforcement alike," he says.

Palmer says if he had to pick a second barrier, it would be the lack of trust of police by some members of the public. He says his organization has work to do there.

LaToya was a reporter with WUWM from 2006 to 2021.
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