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GOP lawmakers absent from special session on policing

Republicans convene special session but hold no debate or votes

File: Wisconsin Capitol.jpg
The Wisconsin State Capitol in Madison. Laura Zimmerman/WPR

Republicans who control the Wisconsin Legislature bypassed Gov. Tony Evers’ call for a special session on police training and policies Monday, Aug. 31.

A clerk convened the state Senate’s special session shortly after noon, with only a few Democratic lawmakers present. The state Assembly convened at about the same time, with two GOP lawmakers present to go through the procedural motions. No debate or votes were held.

Both chambers are officially in recess until Thursday, but it’s unlikely they will return for votes any time soon.

Evers signed an executive order compelling the Legislature to convene in a special session last week, less than 24 hours after police shot and seriously wounded Jacob Blake in Kenosha. The governor asked lawmakers to take up nine bills he introduced earlier this summer in response to Black Lives Matter protests across the state. The package includes bills that would:

  • Ban police use of choke holds.
  • Ban police use of no-knock warrants.
  • Create a civil penalty for racial profiling.
  • Establish statewide use-of-force standards for all law enforcement agencies.
  • Require every officer to complete at least eight hours of training on use-of-force options and de-escalation techniques each year.
  • Require the Department of Justice to collect demographic information on use-of-force incidents and publish annual reports.
  • Create a $1 million grant program for community organizations that have violence-prevention programs.

Evers can call the special session, but he cannot force lawmakers to debate or vote on bills.
Republicans have resisted his call, saying they want more time to review his proposals and to craft their own.

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Republican Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester, has accused Evers of being partisan and disingenuous in his call for a special session, saying the governor hasn’t done enough to foster bipartisan support for any police-related policy changes.

Vos reiterated that on Monday afternoon.

"After the tragic events this past week, the best way forward is not through divisive and partisan politics but through bipartisan cooperation," Vos said in a prepared statement.

Vos said he has asked Assembly Majority Leader Jim Steineke, R-Kaukauna, to chair a legislative task force on racial disparities, educational opportunities, public safety, and police policies and standards. Vos unveiled the task force last week, at about the same time Evers called the special session.

Speaking with reporters on Monday, Steineke said he expects the task force to introduce a "broad package of bills" in early 2021, at the beginning of the next regular legislative session.

"The Democrats' package of bills addresses part of the problem. But it doesn't address everything that we need," Steineke said. "I think the Democrats' package will be part of that conversation. But we want to make sure that it's broadly accepted and impactful at the end of the day when we bring it to the floor for a vote."

Steineke said the task force won't be made up of just lawmakers, but will include faith-based leaders, community organization heads and "people from all walks."

Steineke addressed reporters from in front of the Assembly chamber, which was covered in scaffolding while workers did maintenance near the ceiling. The Speaker's office said the construction could continue until November, meaning if lawmakers did convene a special session, they'd have to do it somewhere else.

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Evers criticized the GOP's task force approach on Monday afternoon, saying Wisconsinites want quicker action from lawmakers.

"The people of Wisconsin don’t want another task force or more delays — they want action and results, and they want it today, not tomorrow or some day months down the road," the governor said in a prepared statement. "It’s disappointing that there’s no sense of urgency from Republicans, and it’s a let down to all the people who are asking us to lead."

Democratic lawmakers also expressed frustration at the Republican majority’s lack of action.

Speaking at a press conference on the Capitol steps on Monday morning, members of the legislative Black caucus decried the choice to bypass Monday’s session.

"Inaction is not an option," said Rep. David Bowen, D-Milwaukee. "Inaction, if that is what they are planning to do (today), only adds to the anti-Black sentiments that are being spewed across this country and across this state."

Rep. Shelia Stubbs, D-Madison, said it is "apparent that Wisconsin is in a crisis."

"Jacob Blake is not the first person in our state to be victimized by law enforcement officers and, without change, he will not be the last person," she said.

Shawn Johnson contributed reporting to this story.

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Wisconsin Public Radio, © Copyright 2020, Board of Regents of the University of Wisconsin System and Wisconsin Educational Communications Board.

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