Wisconsin Lawmakers To Defy Governor On Policing Legislation

  • Legislature only required to gavel in; doesn’t have to vote
  • None of the governor’s bills will be considered: radio report

Wisconsin lawmakers may only minimally comply with their governor’s order to convene a special session on law enforcement legislation after civil unrest in the state over the police shooting of Jacob Blake.

Gov. Tony Evers (D) has the power to order a special session but can’t force the Republican-controlled state Assembly and state Senate to vote as the state finds itself at the center of the national debate over race and policing practices.

No legislation will be considered, the chief of staff to Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald (R) told Wisconsin Public Radio.

That would continue the gridlock displayed In two prior special sessions, one on gun control in November 2019 and one in April 2020 to address voting. Both times, the legislature gaveled in then adjourned in fewer than two minutes.

Blake, a Black man who was shot seven times in the back within sight of his children, remains hospitalized in Kenosha, Wis. The incident sparked violent demonstrations, including the deaths of two protesters who were shot by a 17-year-old who had traveled to Kenosha from Illinois. The NBA’s Milwaukee Bucks and other professional sports teams refused to play scheduled games or take part in practices in protest.

`World Is Watching’

“I don’t think there’s ever been a special session with as much at stake and with as much urgency,” Assembly Minority Leader Gordon Hintz (D) said in an interview. “We need to demonstrate to the public that we recognize this problem. Our state is having a moment; the world is watching us.”

Fitzgerald and Assembly Speaker Robin Vos (R) didn’t respond to requests for comment. Last week, Vos said the governor was responsible for the deaths of the protesters and criticized him for not sending enough National Guard troops to Kenosha; the county sheriff later said the request for troops was made after the shooting.

Photographer: Kerem Yucel / AFP via Getty Images
Wisconsin Gov. Tony Evers (D) before a news conference on August 27, 2020 in Kenosha, Wis. Evers has called the state legislature to a special session to take up policing legislation.

The Evers legislative package would require law enforcement agencies to develop new policies prohibiting the use of chokeholds (LRB 6276), prohibit no-knock search warrants (LRB 6289), and establish statewide use-of-force standards for law enforcement agencies (LRB 6273). The package would impose new standards on police conduct and make it easier for individuals alleging civil-rights violations to sue law enforcement agencies (LRB 6281).

The use-of-force standards would include a duty to preserve life and the use of deadly force only as the last resort, a requirement for officers to stop excessive use of force by other law enforcement personnel, and a measure prohibiting discipline of a law enforcement officer for reporting a violation of the use-of-force policy.

The standards would change some of the responsibilities of the Wisconsin Law Enforcement Standards Board (LRB 6292), and would require the collection of information on the reporting of incidents where law enforcement used force(LRB 6283).

The public could launch civil actions against police for infringing on a person’s rights under the state or federal constitutions, unlawfully discriminating against a person, causing a person to feel harassed, and causing a person to be expelled from a place where a person is lawfully located (LRB 6281). The package would mandate law enforcement officers to complete at least eight hours of training each year on use-of-force options and de-escalation techniques (LRB 6274).

It also would create a grant program to fund community organizations to develop violence interruption strategies to mediate conflicts and require potential job candidates for state law enforcement agencies or corrections facilities who are or have been employed by similar agencies or facilities to authorize previous employers to disclose their employment files to hiring entities (LRB 6275).

‘Symbolic Move’

Black residents had few expectations, said Patrick Roberts, pastor at First Baptist Church in Kenosha.

“For Black residents in Wisconsin, I don’t know that the special session meeting would signify anything significant,” said Roberts.

Prejudice is what needs to be changed, and “that probably won’t ever be addressed, especially not in Wisconsin,” he said.

In the statehouse, “everyone’s taking the view that this is probably the most symbolic move on Gov. Evers’ part to put some pressure on the state legislature,” said David Canon, professor of political science at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

“Basically communities may see it as ‘here’s our dysfunctional state government that can’t get something done, yet again,’ ” Canon added.

Income Disparities

The special session will be held in a state with one of the nation’s worst records of racial disparity.

Wisconsin’s median White household in 2017 had an annual income of about $58,200 but during the same period the median African-American household had an annual income of about $29,200, data from the University of Wisconsin Center on Wisconsin Strategy showed. Only two other states—Minnesota and Louisiana—have greater inequality in White/Black household incomes, the data showed.

Black Wisconsinites are nearly four times more likely to be unemployed than Whites; only Connecticut and Minnesota generate higher levels of employment disparity, according to the data.

The ratio of Black prisoners to White prisoners in Wisconsin is 11.5:1, the second largest ratio in the country. Only New Jersey has a larger disparity in incarceration rates, the data showed.

“A half-century removed from the high-tide of the civil rights movement, progress on racial equity has slowed or stalled on many fronts,” a report produced by four Midwestern policy organizations concluded.

To contact the reporters on this story: Stephen Joyce in Chicago at sjoyce@bloomberglaw.com; Ayanna Alexander in Washington at aalexander@bloomberglaw.com

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Meghashyam Mali at mmali@bloombergindustry.com; Katherine Rizzo at krizzo@bgov.com

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