Gov. Tony Evers and Lt. Gov. Mandela Barnes announced a package of nine bills on Friday targeting accountability and transparency among police in Wisconsin. The legislative package includes proposals that bar the use of chokeholds and no-knock warrants, as well as require annual training on de-escalation techniques.

The package also includes bills that would establish statewide standards on use-of-force and require potential officer candidates to allow their previous employer to disclose their work history.

But the governor stopped short of calling the Legislature into a special session to consider the bills. In a letter to the Legislative Black Caucus, which has requested such a session, Evers implied Republican leaders would likely “gavel in and gavel out” without taking up any measures, as they have in past instances when he's called special sessions. The Legislature is not scheduled to meet again this year.

The legislative package comes as the state and nation recognize Juneteenth on Friday, celebrating an end to Slavery in the United States. The announcement also comes amid weeks of protests following the death of George Floyd, a Black man, in police custody on Memorial Day in Minneapolis.

Now-fired white officer Derek Chauvin kneeled on Floyd's neck for nearly nine minutes while three other officers failed to intervene. Chauvin is facing murder charges while the other officers are charged with aiding and abetting Floyd's murder.

“Our country promises the opportunity of justice and equity, and it’s time for us to deliver on that promise,” said Evers in a press release. “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.”

Evers acknowledged it will take more than legislation to end systemic racism in a call to action to prevent further acts of violence.

Wisconsin is one of the worst states in the nation for racial inequality, according to the Center on Wisconsin Strategy. In a 2019 report, the center found a growing racial divide and fewer opportunities and outcomes for Black residents over the last 40 years. The state has among the worst rates in the nation of infant mortality, child poverty and incarceration rates for Black children and adults.

Black residents also make up around 18% of COVID-19 cases in the state and 24% of known deaths from the virus despite representing roughly 6% of the state's population.

“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," said Barnes 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.”

Jim Palmer, executive director of the Wisconsin Professional Police Association, said the reforms proposed are measures they have long supported or are already well-represented in Wisconsin.

“With regard to the training and some of the other measures that the bill provides for, we believe most agencies largely comply with those standards already,” said Palmer. “But, we think having a uniform standard makes a lot of sense. It's good for public safety, and it's good for maintaining and promoting the public trust that officers need to do their jobs.”

Palmer added that chokeholds are not taught in Wisconsin's law enforcement curriculum and officers are instructed to avoid using chokeholds.

“But, it's also true that they're not prohibited,” he said. “And so for that reason, a measure like that is not one that we would oppose. We would support that.”

However, Palmer said he would prefer to see changes to the proposal barring no-knock warrants, noting they're rarely used and can improve public safety when used correctly. He said the no-knock warrant that ultimately resulted in the death of 26-year-old Louisville EMT Breonna Taylor didn't meet the legal standards established in their use. Palmer added the officers who served the warrant weren't properly trained.

Republican Sen. Van Wanggaard, who chairs the Senate Judiciary and Public Safety Committee, said he has co-sponsored some of the bills put forward by Evers in the past.

“Those bills enhance public confidence in the police and codify existing practice, while preserving public safety and the safety of officers. For the same reason, I have adamantly opposed some of these bills because they perpetuate false impressions of law enforcement and jeopardize the safety of officers and the public,” said Wanggaard in a statement.

Wanggaard said he would evaluate the legislation and all proposed reforms based on the safety of all citizens moving forward, regardless of their race, color or creed.

The package of bills includes:

  • LRB 6273: Establishes statewide use-of-force standards for all law enforcement agencies that would ensure deadly force is to be used only as the last resort, requires the Law Enforcement Standards Board (LESB) to develop a model use-of-force policy and prevents discipline of officers who report use-of-force policy violations.
  • LRB 6274: Requires every officer to complete at least eight hours of training on use-of-force options and de-escalation techniques each year.
  • LRB 6275: Creates a $1 million grant program through the Department of Justice to fund community organizations that use evidence-based outreach and strategies to prevent violence and mediate conflicts.
  • LRB 6276: Requires law enforcement agencies to develop policies barring the use of chokeholds.
  • LRB 6277: Requires every law enforcement agency create use-of-force policies and make them available online.
  • LRB 6281: Creates a civil action for those who call law enforcement with intent to harass, unlawfully discriminate or infringe on a person's rights under the Wisconsin Constitution or the U.S. Constitution.
  • LRB 6283: Requires the Department of Justice to collect demographic information on use-of-force incidents and publish annual reports that includes information about incidents where there was a shooting, even if there was no injury.
  • LRB 6289: Prohibits no-knock search warrants.
  • LRB 6292: Changes certain responsibilities of the LESB, including requiring the board to also regulate jail and juvenile detention officer training standards and oversee recruitment standards for new law enforcement, jail and juvenile detention officers; Requires each law enforcement agency to maintain an employment file for employees; Requires potential candidates for a position in an agency, jail or facility to authorize their previous employer to disclose related employment files to the hiring entity.

Wisconsin Public Radio can be heard in the Twin Ports at 91.3 FM or online at wpr.org/news.