On the eve of President Donald Trump’s visit to Kenosha, where a police shooting and related protests have spurred calls for reform, Wisconsin’s Republican-controlled Legislature took a pass on swift action.
The Legislature on Monday afternoon opened a special session called by Democratic Gov. Tony Evers on police accountability and transparency. But in what is known as a “skeletal session,” there was no debate and most senators were absent. The session will remain open until Thursday, when it could be closed or extended.
Evers ordered the session last week after the police shooting of Jacob Blake in Kenosha in order to take up legislation he introduced in June that would ban no-knock warrants, mandate training on de-escalation techniques and create statewide standards on police use of force.
Trump reiterated late Monday his plan to visit Kenosha amid heightened tensions and a week of protests over Blake’s shooting. Trump is moving forward with the visit despite Evers’ request he cancel because it would distract from the city’s healing process.
Trump had a different view.
“It may also increase enthusiasm and it could increase love and respect for our country, and that’s why I’m going because they did a fantastic job,” Trump told reporters, referring to National Guard members who were called to respond to Kenosha’s civil unrest.
Trump isn’t planning to meet with Blake’s family, who Trump said wanted to have lawyers involved in any conversation. On Monday, seven members of the 23-member Kenosha County Board urged Trump not to cancel his visit.
A quiet start
Midday on Monday, Reps. Jim Steineke, R-Kaukauna, and Tyler August, R-Lake Geneva, gaveled in the Assembly, while Senate Chief Clerk Jeff Renk gaveled in the Senate.
Few Republicans were present during the session, while a group of Democrats, including the Legislative Black Caucus, addressed media beforehand.
Steineke, addressing reporters in front of a darkened Assembly chamber filled with scaffolding for renovations, said meeting in a spur-of-the-moment special session to debate a package of major legislation is “just not how it works.” He said the bills should go through the normal legislative process, which would involve months of review by lawmakers and committees before possibly going to the floor.
He said a new task force created by Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester, to examine public safety and police policies and standards will instead review the legislation over the coming months and potentially develop other ideas to address police accountability.
Steineke, who was appointed chairman of the task force, said it will be composed of a diverse set of participants, with few legislators. Steineke said he anticipates the Legislature would come to the floor by Jan. 1 with a broad package of bills.
“I think the momentum for change is clearly with us now, and so I want to capitalize on that,” Steineke said when asked why Republicans didn’t begin the process of developing policing legislation months ago, after the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis police custody.
Evers cites ‘letdown’
Under state law, the governor has the power to call lawmakers into session, but cannot force them to act and pass legislation. Republican lawmakers did not take action on Monday, just like in other special sessions called by Evers on topics such as gun control and changes to the spring election in response to COVID-19.
“The people of Wisconsin don’t want another task force or more delays — they want action and results, and they want it today, not tomorrow or some day months down the road,” Evers said in a statement.
“It’s disappointing that there’s no sense of urgency from Republicans, and it’s a letdown to all the people who are asking us to lead. We have been talking about these bills for months, and Republicans have had plenty of time to consider them on the merits.”
Outcry over racism
Black legislators tore into Republicans for not taking action, and said the bills introduced by Evers are just one step in the right direction. Black leaders also called for the Legislature to take up Medicaid expansion and other policies that would help reduce racial disparities within Wisconsin’s Black community.
“Blame for Jacob Blake’s shooting does not fall at the hand of just one officer,” said Rep. Shelia Stubbs, D-Madison. “That day, our community was failed by leaders in action, leaders who have long overlooked the systemic injustices in our policing system. They failed us.”
On policing, Rep. Kalan Haywood, D-Milwaukee, said he believes not all police officers are bad apples, but that just one or two can affect the entire police force.
“Why is it that when men, women, children, Black and Brown people are being murdered, we don’t change policy?” Haywood said. “We’re faced with barriers, excuses, political posturing and every reason in the world why we can’t make change. We must address excessive force immediately.”
Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, R-Juneau, said last week the chamber over the coming months plans to examine the police accountability legislation put forward by Evers, as well as a package of bills by Sen. Van Wanggaard, R-Racine, to increase transparency and community involvement in law enforcement. Fitzgerald, however, provided no details on when, if ever, the Senate would meet to pass legislation.
Fitzgerald, who is running for Congress, also said he wants to see legislation that would enhance penalties for violence against police, firefighters and emergency responders.
The legislation proposed by Evers would, among other things:
- Establish statewide use-of-force standards for all law enforcement agencies that would allow deadly force only as a last resort.
- Prohibit discipline of law enforcement officers for reporting violations of the use-of-force policy.
- Develop a model use-of-force policy.
- Require eight hours of annual training on use-of-force options and de-escalation techniques.
- Ban chokeholds.
- Require the Department of Justice to publish an annual report on use-of-force incidents.
- Prohibit no-knock search warrants.
Wanggaard’s package of bills doesn’t go as far as Evers’ on use of force. Among other things, it would:
- Penalize cities and towns for reducing their law enforcement budgets.
- Create an Independent Use of Force Review Advisory Board that would investigate police use-of-force incidents and make recommendations on how to prevent similar incidents in the future.
- Require law enforcement agencies to have a policy on use of force.
- Require the public be involved in selection of police and fire commissioners in Madison and Milwaukee.
- Require the Department of Justice to publish an annual report on law enforcement use-of-force incidents.
- Prohibit training in the use of chokeholds.
Photos: Scenes from a week of unrest in Kenosha