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A Breakdown Of Police Reform Bills Currently Circulating The Wisconsin Legislature

Lauren Sigfusson
Police reform legislation with the most momentum, according to Paru Shah, are those covering increased transparency in police departments and changing use of force policies.

There are more than 20 police reform bills floating through the Wisconsin Legislature.

Paru Shah, a political science professor at UW-Milwaukee, says the bills with the most momentum fall in two categories.

"So, kind of increasing the requirements around reporting, increasing the use of body cameras, and then I think the others probably would be the ones that ... put stronger language around the use of force, chokeholds and other things," she explains.

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Shah says lawmakers have been discussing accountability and use of force measures for a while now. Still, she doesn’t expect the bills to bring the type of fundamental change activists are looking for. "I would argue that these are the kinds of bills that, you know, add on to a policing system, and is not requiring that kind of significant shift in how police interact with communities and how they what they see their role is in those spaces," she says.

At the height of racial justice protests last summer, Gov. Tony Evers and Lt. Gov. Mandela Barnes put forth several reforms, including a complete ban on chokeholds.

After rejecting Evers’ request for a special session on police reform, Republicans convened a bipartisan task force, called the Assembly Speaker's Task Force on Racial Disparities. The task force doled out 18 recommendations —including restricting the use of chokeholds to be used only life-threatening situations.

Republican task force co-chair Rep. Jim Steineke of Kaukauna assesses the task force recommendations he sees as most impactful. "Getting more officers access to crisis intervention training through a grant program to help departments afford that training, I think is an important step. Putting in a grant program for the use of body cameras, I think is important as well, that's something that's widely supported amongst both community activists and law enforcement," he says.

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Steineke says another important measure would require officers to intervene and report excessive force by another officer.

Madison activist ReBecca Burrell, who’s on the task force, says the group’s most important job was to hammer out a statewide definition of "use of force." Burrell spoke about her desire for greater accountability of police officers at a task force discussion on the definition.

"I don't see anything extra in here that has already not been laid out or been in law that says, ‘No, we're done with police brutality, we're done with allowing officers to not be held accountable.’ I don't see any of that in here, I see protection for law enforcement, we're not here to further protect the law enforcement, we're here to bring accountability to the law enforcement," she said.

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The task force did come to general consensus on that, but Burrell still has criticisms.

"I think we did the bare minimum, like mandated reporting ... for the for the public to access reporting. I don't think that we did any grander thing. I think we did a lot of gaslighting," she says.

Burrell does support some task force recommendations, like whistleblower protections and officers’ employment records following them from job to job. But she says the group punted on important topics like banning no-knock warrants and ending qualified immunity for police officers, the legal doctrine that protects them from being personally sued.

Democrats have proposed their own bills on qualified immunity and no-knock warrants.

Democratic Rep. Supreme Moore Omokunde of Milwaukee is also circulating a bill on decertification. In his proposal, an officer who violates a use of force policy in one jurisdiction would be decertified and have to be recertified by a civilian board before getting a new policing job.

"Locally, we have a Joseph Mensah, who shot and killed three people in Wauwatosa. He was not decertified as a police officer. There was an investigation happening and there were all these things, but he's now a sheriff's deputy in Waukesha County," says Omokunde.

Mensah was never criminally charged, as he was cleared of wrongdoing by the Milwaukee District Attorney’s Office. None of the police reform bills — whether they’ve come out of the task force or not — have passed the Legislature yet.

Gov. Tony Evers has said if a policing bill can lead to more transparency and accountability, he’ll consider signing it.

Maayan is a WUWM news reporter.
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