Photo by diegoparra on Pixabay.
Today the Wisconsin state senate considered a slate of bills, from legalizing paddlewheel raffles, requiring the national anthem at state sports arenas, to a handful of election related legislation.
Also on the docket were five police reform bills which, according to the Associated Press, are the legislature’s first passed bills addressing police reform since the murder of George Floyd last May.
The first of the bills would make changes to the Police and Fire Commissions in Madison and Milwaukee. These boards have authority under state law to discipline police officers, including hiring, promoting, and firing.
Under current law, the majority of the seats must be filled by mayoral appointments which are then approved by the city council. If the mayor does not choose to appoint a replacement, then there is no way to fill the vacant seat.
According to Democratic Senator Lena Taylor, a Democrat from Milwaukee, that has been a serious problem in Milwaukee.
“People are on the board whose terms ended. They ended. Those people, while their terms ended, they got to decide settlements, contracts for chiefs, disciplinary actions, I think that’s inappropriate,” said Taylor. “All because there are no rules that say a person stops serving if their term is up and they have not been re-appointed.”
Under the bill, city councils would be able to make appointments to Police and Fire Commissions without the approval of the mayor, under certain circumstances. It would also allow the boards to add police and fire union nominees to seats and require board members to take mandated classes.
It would also establish independent monitors over the boards.
Senator Taylor says she doesn’t think the bill addresses every issue, but it is an important step forward.
However, some other Democrats said that the bill did not go far enough. In particular, some Democrats backed an amendment that would have allowed communities to require that police officers working in communities live within city limits, a policy advocated by some police reform activists.
A 2020 report from WisContext found that 66 percent of Madison police officers live outside city limits. In Milwaukee, about half of Milwaukee Police officers live outside city limits. And in Racine, more than 84% of police officers live outside of city limits.
According to Tim Carpenter, a Democrat from Milwaukee, having police officers reside inside city limits would help improve outcomes.
“A Mister Osavedo was strangled to death because they were having a little (cocktail) party there, and something happened,” said Carpenter. “This individual, who I believe was in his early twenties, was strangled to death in a chokehold. And police officers from the city of Milwaukee were there. They’re the ones that were on the phone, you can hear the person asking ‘please let me go. I want to go to my momma, I want to go’ but no. Other police officers stood there and did nothing. They were on that phone call when Joel could have been saved.”
Senator Van Wanggaard, a Republican from Racine who authored four of the five police reform bills, criticised the amendment. Wanggaard said that the residency requirement does not address the issues facing cities like Madison and Milwaukee.
“Even today we haven’t seen one single proposal change from the fire and police commission to increase transparency or community involvement. They just don’t want any change on the fire and police commission,” said Wanggaard. “The Milwaukee FPC is an embarassment; it has cost the city millions of dollars. It needs to be reformed. This bill does it, and this amendment does not.”
The proposed amendment ultimately failed, and the bill itself passed with only one Democratic vote: Lena Taylor’s.
The other four bills, which passed with no opposition, would:
- Require police departments to post their use of force policies,
- Require an annual report information about law enforcement use of force incidents including shooting incidents,
- Set aside a grant program for community-based policing in some cities, and
- Require more standards for jail and juvenile detention officers.
The bills head to the state Assembly for consideration, but are not yet scheduled for a vote.