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Tony Evers, Mandela Barnes unveil bills banning police chokeholds and limiting use of force
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Tony Evers, Mandela Barnes unveil bills banning police chokeholds and limiting use of force

From the Pain and protest: Madison responds to the police killing of George Floyd series
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Gov. Tony Evers and Lt. Gov. Mandela Barnes unveiled Friday a package of bills that would ban the use of chokeholds by Wisconsin police officers, as well as limit other uses of force.

The call by the Democratic governor and lieutenant governor for the package of nine bills aimed at increased police accountability and transparency comes amid nearly three weeks of protests in Madison and nationwide in response to the death of George Floyd after a Minneapolis police officer knelt on his neck for several minutes.

“Our country promises the opportunity of justice and equity, and it’s time for us to deliver on that promise,” Evers said in a statement. “We know we don’t have all of the answers — no one does. This legislation is a first step toward dismantling the systems we’ve created, but it can only be a first step. Racism and racial disparities can’t be solved with any single bill or package of bills, or person — it’s on all of us, together.”

The package of bills would:

  • Establish statewide use of force standards for all law enforcement agencies identifying the use of deadly force as only allowable as a last resort and that such use of force should be limited to the least amount of force necessary.
  • Require officers to complete eight hours of training on the use of force and de-escalation techniques annually.
  • Create a $1 million grant program, administered by the Department of Justice, to fund community organizations that work to mediate conflicts.
  • Require law enforcement agencies to develop policies banning the use of chokeholds.
  • Require law enforcement agencies to prepare policies for the use of force and make such policies publicly available.
  • Put in statute a civil cause of action against unnecessarily calling police for the intent of infringing on a person’s constitutional rights.
  • Prohibit no-knock search warrants.
  • Require additional training and hiring standards for police departments, jails and juvenile detention centers.

Jim Palmer, executive director of the Wisconsin Professional Police Association, said while many of the measures the bills call for are already well established in police departments across the state, his organization welcomes public policy discussions on the issues and supports much of what is being proposed including some uniform state standards.

All police departments in the state are now required to have use of force policies that recognize a duty to protect life and to use deadly force only as a last resort, Palmer said, adding, “Given the times in which we find ourselves,” a statewide standard is worth discussing.

While the use of chokeholds is not explicitly banned in Wisconsin, training standards call for officers not to use them, he said, adding WPPA is not opposed to a ban.

Wisconsin is considered one of the worst states in the nation for racial disparities between white and Black communities in areas such as unemployment, incarceration rates, income and education.

“We continue to lose far too many Black lives, be it from inequities in criminal justice and policing, in health care, or in economic well-being,” Barnes said in a statement. “The social and economic consequences of these deep-seated inequities reach every community in our state and eliminating them will require action at every level of government. Passing these bills is one piece of how we move closer to accountability, equity, and justice for all.”

Evers came short of calling for the Legislature to convene in special session to take up the package, noting that previous attempts to force a vote in the past — such as gun control proposed by Democratic lawmakers last fall — have been ignored by the GOP-led Assembly and Senate.

“We should not need a special session when people across our state are demanding we take action,” Evers and Barnes said in a Friday letter to Wisconsin Legislative Black Caucus chairwoman Rep. LaKeshia Myers, D-Milwaukee. “We are committed to working with Republican leadership, committee chairs, and other members of the Legislature to find common ground on these issues, and we know you are, too.”

The offices of Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, R-Juneau, and Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester, did not return requests for comment on the proposed legislation.

Sen. Van Wanggaard, R-Racine, chairman of the Senate Committee on Judiciary and Public Safety and a former police officer, said in a statement he has supported some of the bills Ever proposed, but has opposed others “because they perpetuate false impressions of law enforcement and jeopardize the safety of officers and the public.”

“At the end of the day, the goal of both law enforcement and the law is the safety of all citizens, regardless of race, creed, color or sex,” Wanggaard said. “That is the standard I will continue to use to evaluate these bills and all police reform bills going forward.”

Friday also marked the first time in state history that the Juneteenth flag, as part of the annual commemoration of the ending of slavery in the United States, flew above the Wisconsin Capitol.

“While today we celebrate the end of slavery, the Black community is still struggling with the legacy of racism within legal structures and everyday life,” Rep. David Bowen, D-Milwaukee, said in a statement. “The protests of the past three weeks have shown lawmakers that it is long overdue to change the status quo, and we can no longer meet systemic racism with inaction.

“I hope that Republican legislators will hear the call of the protesters and put politics aside to come to the table,” Bowen said. “Passing these bills would be an important first step towards real reform, but we must continue to rise to the moment. These bills are a good start, but they cannot be an end.”

State Journal reporter Sandy Cullen contributed to this report.

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