Assembly OKs officer death probe bill

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Associated Press
Wednesday, February 19, 2014

MADISON — Wisconsin police departments would have to enlist outside investigators to probe officer-involved deaths, Milwaukee police would get money for more gunshot sensors and jail guards could strip search more inmates under a trio of bills the state Assembly passed overwhelmingly on Tuesday.

Rep. Garey Bies, R-Sister Bay, introduced the investigations measure in October in response to a number of high-profile officer-involved deaths over the last decade. Police in Kenosha killed Michael Bell in 2004; Derek Williams, a robbery suspect, died gasping for breath in a Milwaukee squad car in 2011; and a Madison officer shot and killed Paul Heenan during a sidewalk scuffle in 2012. None of the officers involved were criminally charged.

Bies said the bill is an attempt to allay concerns about the possibility of officers investigating their friends and covering up for them.

"(The bill will) give the public confidence. It'll give the relatives of the person who died confidence. It also will give police officers more satisfaction when they are found that they did nothing wrong that they'll have more credibility on that finding," Bies, a former Door County sheriff's deputy, told reporters at a news conference before the Assembly convened.

Currently, smaller Wisconsin departments often rely on outside agencies to investigate officer-involved deaths. But the state's two biggest police departments, in Madison and Milwaukee, investigate their own officers.

The bill will allow agencies to use outside investigators from any county, including their own. The measure passed easily on a voice vote Tuesday.

Rep. Chris Taylor, D-Madison, one of the bill's co-sponsors, told the Assembly she lives about a mile from where Heenan was killed. She said the shooting shook the state's capital city.

"(The bill) doesn't solve all the problems," she said. "It doesn't bring people's loved ones back. But I do think it makes a difference for families."

The Assembly also passed a bill that would funnel $175,000 from the state's general fund to the Milwaukee Police Department's ShotSpotter program, a system of sensors the department has deployed around the city to pick up the sounds of gunshots. Police Chief Ed Flynn says the system allows his officers to respond quickly to crime scenes and analyze crime patterns.

Flynn wants to use the state money and a matching $175,000 in the Milwaukee County budget to buy enough sensors to expand the system's coverage area from the current 3 square miles to 10. Rep. Mike Kuglitsch, R-New Berlin, the bill's main author, called the bill an "epiphany" during a news conference Tuesday because state, county and city government came to an agreement on something. It passed 95-1.

The chamber also passed a measure that would expand jail strip searches. Under current Wisconsin law, county jailors can strip search only people arrested for a felony or certain misdemeanors involving weapons, battery and reckless injury. The bill would allow jailors to strip search anyone who will be held with other prisoners.

Rep. Duey Stroebel, R-Saukville, the bill's main sponsor, says the change would simplify jail policies and ensure facilities are safer. Opponents say the bill would allow children to be strip searched and open the door to abuse.

It looked like a fierce debate was on tap until a group of Assembly Republicans and Democrats introduced an amendment that would exclude juveniles from searches, make the searches visual unless touching is necessary and require each agency that performs such searches to adopt written policies and train its employees in performing them. The amendment defused tensions and the bill passed on a voice vote.

All three measures now go to the state Senate, but their fate in that chamber is unclear. A spokesman for Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, R-Juneau, said Senate Republicans haven't discussed any of the proposals.

Last updated: 12:23 am Wednesday, February 19, 2014

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