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Milwaukee Democrats Want Independent Reviews of Jail Deaths

A group of Democratic legislators wants to expand the 2014 Wisconsin law that requires outside investigations of citizen deaths in which police are involved, so that it also applies to deaths that occur in county jails. Those could include several in the Milwaukee County Jail where four people have died during the past year. One was an infant born in a cell to an incarcerated woman, another was a male inmate who died of dehydration. 

Under the 2014 law, when police officers are involved in a death, another law enforcement agency must review the circumstances and then recommend to the district attorney whether or not to charge an officer with a crime.

Representative David Bowen says sheriff’s departments should not be investigating themselves, when deaths occur on their watch, in county jails.

“So for those who don’t know, yes, we had four deaths in the Milwaukee County Jail, one of them being an infant who was born. One of those deaths had an external investigation, but the other three (haven’t), and for the fact that it has been over, if I’m not mistaken, over eight months, nine months, and the grieving families have not gotten anything, that’s a problem.

"I think this is an issue of not whether we’re going to be reactive, it’s about what we’re going to do to make sure there is transparency in any system in government. When we’re talking about corrections, when we’re talking about law enforcement, the people who go through these particular systems are already on the other side of the aisle to where they may not be believed; they may not have any credibility, but we need to make sure we are protecting their rights as citizens,” Bowen says.

Supporters of the change say 40-percent of Wisconsin’s county jails – including Milwaukee’s - review inmate deaths internally to determine what went wrong.

Both political parties supported the 2014 law that requires independent investigations of police-involved deaths. Sponsors of the new plan hope that bipartisan support continues, when it comes to extending the law to local corrections officers and their employer, sheriff’s departments.

The proposal would reach back in time, to cover all deaths that occurred in jails, over the last three years.

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