The police shooting of Jacob Blake in Kenosha on Sunday left a Black man paralyzed from the waist down, a family irrevocably changed and a community heartbroken and frustrated.
It’s a devastating and familiar narrative of residents harmed at the hands of law enforcement that has played out in cities across the nation: in Wisconsin’s neighboring state of Minnesota with the police killing of George Floyd in May and in Madison several times since 2012.
At a press conference with Kenosha Mayor John Antaramian on Monday, one local resident, Terrance Warthen, called for “lasting change.”
“The attention on this issue helps us drive home that this community needs justice but a week from now, a month from now, a year from now, these cameras will be gone. Most of these protesters will be gone,” Warthen said. “But those of us in this city whose loved ones, whose livelihoods and whose hearts are here, will still be here.
“I need you to do everything you can to help us find justice in this case for everyone and a lasting justice for this community.”
Like Floyd’s death, Blake’s shooting exacerbates community wounds in Madison caused by the police killings of Paul Heenan in 2012, and later Ashley DiPiazza, Londrell Johnson, Tony Robinson and Michael Schumacher.
In Madison, the City Council is poised to act as soon as next week on proposals to create an independent police monitor and civilian review board that some say could make the lasting change that Warthen and others like him desire for their communities. Still, some are concerned the mechanisms themselves won’t be enough to create meaningful change.
Before City Council action, residents will have the opportunity to weigh in at committee meetings on Wednesday and Friday.
The proposals are meant to increase community accountability over the police department and are a result of work beginning in 2015 following Robinson’s death. Ald. Shiva Bidar, District 5, who was on the City Council when the Madison Police Department Policy & Procedure Review Ad Hoc Committee was formed, said this work, in part, compelled her to stay on the council for 10 years.
She said the most “important and critical work” the City Council can do is implement the independent monitor and civilian review board.
“It’s the fundamental change, structural change that needs to happen for us to move forward,” Bidar said. “The work is really about how do we change structures and processes that create accountability?”
The shooting of Blake was captured on a video, which shows Blake walking to a vehicle with his back toward police. Two officers follow him with their guns drawn. As Blake opens the car door, an officer grabs his shirt and shoots him in the back.
Seven gunshots can be heard before a car horn pierces the air as Blake slumps forward. A woman who followed them to the vehicle screams.
The man who claimed to have made the video, 22-year-old Raysean White, told the Associated Press he saw Blake scuffling with three officers and heard them yell, “Drop the knife! Drop the knife!” before the gunfire erupted. He said he didn’t see a knife in Blake’s hands.
Three of Blake’s children were in the car when he was shot, according to the family’s attorney Benjamin Crump.
The Chicago Sun-Times reported Tuesday morning that Blake is paralyzed from the waist down. Doctors didn’t know yet if the injury is permanent.
Now, the Wisconsin Department of Justice’s Division of Criminal Investigation is reviewing the incident with assistance from the Wisconsin State Patrol and the Kenosha County Sheriff's Office. The officers involved have been placed on administrative leave.
DCI will continue its investigation and turn over a report to the Kenosha County DA’s office, which typically happens within 30 days, per DOJ. The DA will then review the report and decide whether to level any charges. If no charges are brought, the division will make the report available to the public.
Also Monday, Gov. Tony Evers called on the Republican-led Legislature to act on bills that he said would bolster transparency in the state’s approach to law enforcement. The special session call urges lawmakers to convene Aug. 31, but a top legislative Republican has already rejected the directive.
At the press conference in Kenosha, Wisconsin Attorney General Josh Kaul said it is “vital” that elected officials hear those who have been speaking up on policing issues.
“Those voices need to be represented in the debates we have,” Kaul said. “We do need to reform our criminal justice system.”
For some in Madison, Blake’s shooting is a reminder of violence against their community. Bidar said the incident underscores a painful daily reality for Black Madison residents.
“The trauma is constant,” Bidar said.
Officials from local nonprofit Freedom Inc. described the effect the recent death of 11-year-old Anisa Scott, who was struck by a bullet in the head, and the shooting of Blake has had on Madison.
“These incidents have devastated our communities and their families, and they are just the most recent reflections of a larger system of violence that evolved out of its neglect for Black and Brown communities,” the organization said in a statement, while also calling for community-based solutions.
Civilian review process
This is not the first time that a Kenosha police officer shot a civilian. In 2004, an officer shot and killed Michael Bell, who was 21 at the time. Over the next 10 years, Bell’s father launched his own investigation and a public campaign calling for greater police accountability.
His efforts led to a first-in-the-nation law, signed by former Gov. Scott Walker, mandating that outside investigators review incidents when an officer is involved with a loss of life. This process is in place today with DCI.
As Madison moves toward bolstering police accountability, Ald. Rebecca Kemble, District 18, said she is keeping Bell’s father and his work in mind.
“What we do at the city is constrained by our state law, and it’s a national problem and not just a state problem, so we have to be thinking on all levels at once,” said Kemble, who worked with Bidar and Ald. Donna Moreland, District 7, to finalize the details of the oversight measures.
The recommendations to create an independent auditor and civilian oversight board are the result of studies conducted by the OIR Group, a California-based consulting team, and the city’s ad hoc committee.
These reports noted that Madison has a historically progressive police department and positive national reputation, particularly for its programs focusing on community policing initiatives. In fact, the 2017 OIR report described the MPD as “far from a department ‘in crisis,’” and “‘ahead of the curve.’”
But building trust “is one of the great challenges facing the MPD,” according to the ad hoc committee’s 2019 report.
Both reports featured accountability improvement measures, which were reflected in key recommendations to create a civilian review process. Keith Findley, co-chair of the Madison ad hoc committee, said the independent monitor and civilian review board would provide the people who are policed with a mechanism to be heard when incidents like what happen in Kenosha occur.
The hope, as described by Findley, is lofty: “By doing that we can bridge gaps, we can gain greater understanding in both the police community and the low-income and minority communities affected, that we can change attitudes, that we can reduce incidents like this and we can make sure when people feel aggrieved that their concerns are heard and recognized.”
The yet-to-be-hired independent auditor would have the capacity to examine policies, patterns and practices and promote long-term systemic changes on an ongoing basis. This position would have the power to access MPD records, issue subpoenas, develop reports and recommendations, and conduct investigations.
The auditor would report to a 13-member civilian oversight board, which would hire the monitor, conduct an annual review of the police chief and make policy recommendations to police, among other responsibilities.
Board members would be chosen by nine community organizations. Each organization will submit three candidates, with the mayor and City Council choosing nine from the group. The mayor and City Council will also each choose two members.
Kemble said a new model of an auditor and board would allow for an independent person to observe patterns emerging in the police department, recommend changes to shift them, if needed; and investigate cases of wrongdoing. Also, residents would have resources to bring forward complaints against officers.
Once implemented, Kemble said there would be “truly independent eyes on police actions and also on police policies and patterns.”
Findley, an assistant professor of law at UW-Madison and co-director of the Wisconsin Innocence Project, said if the independent monitor and civilian review board were reacting to an incident like the one in Kenosha, they would evaluate what transpired and create their own report.
This would not interfere or replace the investigation by the justice department or internal reviews by the police. But they would have the ability to go beyond the DOJ’s narrow scope of determining if crimes have been committed.
Findley said the independent monitor and civilian review board would have the “authority and responsibility to dig a little deeper” and determine not only the legality of a situation but whether police actions were in compliance with the ad hoc committee’s recommendations and align with best practices and internal policies.
And if the civilian-led report doesn't match findings from the DOJ or police department, Findley said “that’s the value of it.”
“It’s the people themselves evaluating the incident,” Findley said. “It would not have a binding effect on anybody, but it would have powerful expressive effect in that it would be the community’s opportunity to express its perspective on what happened in ways that could lead to reshaping policy, changing training, changing personnel, whatever it may be.”
It could also be a formal step into additional reviews by the Police and Fire Commission.
“What it would mean is the aggrieved community in Madison would have a mechanism for being heard that may not exist in other communities,” Findley said.
In its response to the OIR report, the MPD did not oppose the concept of an auditor and said it would approach any effort to create a position “with openness and transparency, and with the objective of developing a workable structure.”
The statement also noted that cities with such positions have a history of “insufficient internal accountability” and are from states without a body like the Police and Fire Commission, which has statutory authority.
“Neither of these apply to Madison,” the MPD’s response noted.
Previously, Interim Police Chief Vic Wahl has said that the MPD is not opposed to the auditor position but that the “devil is in the details” and that he wants to make sure it’s beneficial for all parties.
“It's important to have that be the first link in the chain, as it were, to have the auditor position set up and then sort of build off of it,” Wahl said in June.
Greg Gelembiuk, who is on the ad hoc committee, said he is under no impression that implementing the proposals will be easy. Gelembiuk is a member of the Community Response Team, a group of Madison citizens working to address policing and public safety issues that formed following the 2012 police shooting of Heenan.
“Creating a mechanism that would actually function as intended is very difficult,” Gelembiuk said. “If you look nationally, most civilian oversight mechanisms, the general community reaction ultimately has been one of disappointment.”
He said they’re often changed during the implementation process to wield less influence.
“To have true, proper oversight and some semblance of community control, something like the independent monitor and police oversight mechanism is absolutely essential,” Gelembiuk said. “For Madison to succeed, it is really crucial that it be implemented as intended.”
As currently proposed, the civilian review mechanisms do not cede authority over the police department to the community. The monitor can refer cases to the PFC — which retains statutory authority to hire, fire and discipline — and make recommendations.
But M Adams, co-executive director of Freedom, Inc. argues that accountability measures won’t work if they don’t give people power to force change.
“If you do not have power over something, you can suggest, you can recommend, you can hope, you can beg, you can plead,” Adams said in a June interview with the Cap Times. “But you cannot make them accountable.”
The Public Safety Review Committee will discuss the proposals at a virtual meeting Wednesday at 5 p.m. followed by the council’s Executive Committee Friday at 4:30 p.m. These final committee recommendations precede the City Council’s expected action at its virtual meeting Sept. 1 at 6:30 p.m.
While emphasizing the importance of an independent monitor and civilian review board, Mayor Satya Rhodes-Conway said a “few tweaks” are needed on the proposed ordinance.
“It’s most important that we create a structure that is really going to be effective,” said Rhodes-Conway, who included $200,000 in the 2020 budget for the auditor position.
She said community pain heightened by police shootings underscores the importance of overhaul measures and ongoing work of addressing structural racism.
City Council President Sheri Carter also emphasized a multifaceted approach, expressing the need for change to police departments, including an evaluation of institutional and systemic racism and community-level work.
“Change will only come from within; we can ask, make policies, enact laws, but it is within the institutions to make the commitment to change,” Carter and Vice President Syed Abbas said in a statement Monday. “We implore residents to take more decisive and meaningful actions, like voting, to hold elected officials accountable for laws which serve to protect those who choose to abuse their power.”
Carter said these efforts should run on parallel tracks.
“All of these things in my opinion need to happen around the same time,” Carter said. “This isn't the normal we should be striving for. It also has to be a commitment. We really have to have a commitment, externally and internally.”
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