Gov. Tony Evers is pushing local leaders to bolster funding for community services as he holds out hope the Republican-controlled Legislature will act on efforts to overhaul law enforcement procedures ahead of the November election.
The Democratic executive’s comments on Tuesday came after 10 straight days of demonstrations in Madison in the aftermath of George Floyd’s death in Minneapolis police custody and a week after he called on lawmakers to take up a bill to standardize police use-of-force policies.
While Evers said he is still looking to discuss the legislation with top Republican leaders, he said both state and local officials have to do their parts to change practices.
Evers stopped short of calling a special session on the issue, saying he first wanted to make sure everyone was on board — including Democrats, Republicans and members of the Wisconsin Legislative Black Caucus (which requested a special session on overhauling the state’s justice system earlier Tuesday) — before taking that step.
In the meantime, the governor pointed to other potential topics surrounding rethinking qualified immunity — a legal doctrine that protects public officials from being sued for actions they take while working, even if their actions violate another’s constitutional rights — and creating a public registry that could track officer misconduct.
On the second point, the former state superintendent noted the Department of Public Instruction’s license lookup function “for teachers, and when they’re under investigation for various issues, people know that. Why not for police too?”
The offices of Assembly Speaker Robin Vos and Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald didn’t say whether they supported the use-of-force policy legislation. A Vos spokeswoman noted the Rochester Republican told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel last week he is “always open to having additional discussions to see if another bipartisan consensus can be found surrounding these issues.”
The legislation, sponsored by 10 Democrats, was first introduced in March when the legislative session was all but wrapped up, and didn’t receive hearings in either chamber. No Republicans have signed on to support it, though GOP support would be needed to get it through the Legislature they control.
Under the bill, law enforcement agencies would need to ensure their use-of-force policies stress the importance of preserving the life of all individuals; that deadly force should only be used “as the last resort;” that tactics should be deployed to minimize the likelihood force would be necessary; that any force used “should be the least amount” necessary; and that fellow officers “must take reasonable action” to prevent or cease an “unreasonable use of force.”
It’s unclear when such a meeting would happen with Evers and GOP leaders. A spokeswoman said Vos had heard Tuesday afternoon the governor’s office would reach out in the coming days to schedule a conversation.
In Madison, the police department’s use-of-force procedures largely align with the bill, though a Cap Times review of MPD’s plan shows it lacks one key component contained in the legislation: if officers do use physical force, it should be the "least amount of force necessary to safely address the threat."
As part of the ongoing protests, demonstrators in Madison and other parts of the state and country are continuing to push for an end to police brutality and changes to law enforcement practices if not the outright defunding of those departments.
While Evers doesn’t support disbanding police forces in the state, he instead pushed for investing in more community services, including efforts to address addiction and homelessness.
Doing so would likely be difficult as local officials brace for almost certain budget shortfalls stemming from economic fallout over the novel coronavirus pandemic.
Among the initiatives Evers is urging local leaders to look at are their law enforcement office’s policies and budgets. But he noted the state also “has a role to play in some of those, in terms of funding.”
“But at the end of the day, if we have a healthy, safe community, we can relieve a lot of the burden off our police department and frankly deal with things more proactively rather than after the fact,” he said.
Evers also said he was considering issuing a proclamation declaring racism a public health crisis, though he noted doing so “wouldn’t do anything more than” elevate the issue — a topic he noted is already getting attention in communities across the state.
Elsewhere, localities and others are pushing for such language. Democratic lawmakers in Ohio have sought to pass a resolution naming racism a public health issue, which they said would be the first of its kind nationwide, and would require legislative support to be enacted.
In Wisconsin, Evers wouldn’t be able to officially declare racism as a public health emergency like he did for COVID-19 because of stipulations in state statute.
Still, he acknowledged, “me doing a declaration of emergency would be like, ‘I get it,’” Evers said. “No matter where you’re talking about … (protests) happened all across the state and the message is pretty much the same all across the state: racism is an issue, it’s a huge issue for Wisconsin, it’s a huge issue for our country. We have to deal with that head on.”
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