Although there are multiple police reform bills that are up for consideration within the Wisconsin Legislature, they likely won’t be fast-tracked.
On Juneteenth (June 19), Gov. Tony Evers and Lt. Gov. Mandela Barnes, both Democrats, forwarded a series of criminal justice reform bills but didn’t make any calls to bring the Republican-controlled Legislature into session at that time.
After the Jacob Blake shooting on Aug. 23, Evers called for a special session to pass those bills, which included establishing a use of force review board, banning the use of chokeholds (even though the practice is rarely if ever trained in Wisconsin), banning no-knock warrants and to require more yearly de-escalation training for law enforcement.
State Sen. Van Wanggaard, R-Racine, supported several of those bills, but opposed requiring more training for officers and opposed banning no-knock warrants, which Wanggaard said can keep officers safe since they make it more difficult for criminals to prepare for interactions with police. Calls to prohibit no-knock warrants have grown in volume after Breonna Taylor was killed by police in Louisville during the serving of a no-knock warrant.
Wanggaard proposed his own package of bills (along with Sen. Alberta Darling, R-River Hills) less than a week after the Blake shooting. But Scott Kelly, Wanggaard’s chief of staff, said in an email that the timing “was just a coincidence” and that Wanggaard’s proposal would have been published in late August anyway.
“With everything happening in 2020, I know people’s perception of time seems to have changed,” Kelly said. “Van wasn’t expecting the bills to pass until next year anyway. So, he’s not annoyed or impatient about the public lack of progress. He’s gotten a lot of good feedback inside and outside the building about the package.”
One thing included in both packages of bills was setting up a police use-of-force review board, which Wanggaard told WisconsinEye would be the first of its kind in the U.S. and could be a model for other states if implemented. More than two years of planning and discussions have gone into the development of that board. The Madison City Council established a local police oversight board earlier this month; like the planned state board, that board has been in the pipeline for years.
Rather than fully enter a special session to pass legislation as the governor requested, Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester, has established a task force to look into police accountability, reform and race relations.
“This task force is not a substitute for action and it is not the solution, but it is a step forward,” one of the task force’s heads, Rep. Shelia Stubbs, D-Madison, told reporters at the Capitol on Tuesday. “As you can see now, we are stuck. The Democrats and Republicans, we are stuck. Our governor did the best he could do with the authority that he had and right now, this is what we have.”
As for the slow-moving legislative process, “Van thought it was important to get the PACT (short for “Police Accountability, Community Involvement and Transparency”) bills out there for discussion,” Kelly said. “Van wanted to show that he, and Republicans more broadly, recognized policing as an issue and that there are steps that can be taken to benefit both the community and police.”
Kelly said that his office expects the task force to recommend approval of the bills within PACT, and that they could be voted on next year.
As for the lack of action within the Wisconsin Legislature since Floyd’s death and the start of the coronavirus pandemic, Kelly said: “Since I started in the Capitol 27 years ago as an intern, I can’t remember a time that the Legislature met after May or June of an even-numbered year.” Legislative elections, except for special elections, are held in November of even-numbered years.