There are so many proposed policing reforms swirling in the Capitol—with even more expected from an Assembly task force whose members haven’t been announced—that it’s fair to ask whether any of them will become law when the new Legislature convenes next year.

Democratic Gov. Tony Evers has nine bills he wants to become law. But the Legislature’s Black Caucus has its own list, as does Republican Sen. Van Wanggaard, a retired Racine police officer, and the Wisconsin Professional Police Association.

There’s agreement on some of the changes. But elections only weeks away will pick new Capitol players, and any repeat of the Kenosha police shooting and protests could change the dynamics again.

The reforms focus on:

  • Police arrest tactics, including banning chokeholds. Some Wisconsin officials say chokeholds are not now taught or even allowed. Others say officers who have tried other arrest tactics, and who are in danger of being killed by suspects, may have to resort to a chokehold.
  • Banning no-knock warrants, issued by judges and allowing officers to enter private homes without announcing themselves. But Wanggaard, in a WisconsinEye interview, said no-knock warrants are rarely issued, justified when used and must continue to be allowed by state law.
  • Uniform training standards for the next generation of law officers. Evers wants statewide training standards amended to emphasize ways to defuse incidents that could turn violent and cultural sensitivity.

But U.S. Rep. Mark Pocan argues that national training standards—and not on a state-by-state basis—are needed. He has sponsored that bill in Congress.

  • Citizen oversight of police departments, including selections of chiefs of police and how to investigate complaints against officers accused of excessive force. The demotion of Milwaukee’s police chief by the city’s Fire and Police Commission shows how controversial oversight can be.
  • A database of officers accused of or found to have repeatedly used excessive violence. That would prevent officers accused of violating suspects’ rights from resigning before a complaint is resolved, applying for—and getting—jobs in other police departments, sponsors say.

The newest Capitol player in the police reform debate is a task force Assembly Speaker Robin Vos is creating. A statement from the Republican Assembly leader said the focus of the task force will be “racial disparities, educational opportunities, public safety, and police policies and standards.”

That’s a remarkably broad assignment for a task force whose only members so far are its cochairs—Assembly Majority Leader Jim Steineke and Democratic Rep. Shelia Stubbs, the first African-American woman to be elected from Dane County.

Steineke has said public members of the task force can apply by email—a process likely to delay its first meeting until October.

Steineke also said he would like the task force to draft recommendations for new laws by early next year, so they could be considered by the new Legislature before it passes a new state budget. Given the task force’s broad, complex focus, that may be too ambitious a timeline.

Wanggaard, who has had his reform bills drafted, has said building the consensus needed to pass them will also take until next year. He is not up for re-election Nov. 3.

The decision by Stubbs, whose door-to-door campaigning before her 2018 election prompted a Madison homeowner to call police, to cochair a Vos-created task force is unpopular with some of her fellow Democrats.

Critics say Stubbs should not be a part of anything that could give Vos a political boost.

“I wouldn’t have done it,” one veteran Milwaukee-area Democratic legislator observed last week. Another called the cause of police reform “the Civil Rights fight of our generation.”

But two other Democratic officials had no problem with Stubbs cochairing the speaker’s task force. She’ll be “at the table” when important issues are aired—whether or not they result in new laws, those two said.

When Stubbs joined Steineke at a Capitol press conference announcing her role as task force cochair, she called racism a “public health crisis” that she must do all she can to fight.

“Wisconsin is the worst state to raise a black family,” Stubbs said. “Let me be clear: The task force is not a substitute for action, and it is not the solution. But it is a step forward.”

Steven Walters is a senior producer for the nonprofit public affairs channel WisconsinEye. Contact him at stevenscotwalters@gmail.com.

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