Wisconsin task force recommends criminal penalties, psych evaluations in unveiled police reform proposals

Seven months after its creation, a subcommittee of Wisconsin’s Racial Disparities Task Force has released 18 recommendations for police reform laws. Later the same day, Gov. Evers issued an executive order to law enforcement agencies in the state to review and update their use-of-force policies.

While more than 30 other states have passed police oversight and reform laws in the wake of George Floyd’s murder, according to a New York Times analysis, Wisconsin is not yet one of them. Lawmakers are focused on getting it right instead, task force leaders argued.

“To honor the work of the task force members, I think it’s important to recognize that in many cases where there was legislation, we propose going further,” Republican co-chair Jim Steineke said in an interview Wednesday.

The task force was convened in the wake of a Kenosha police officer shooting Jacob Blake in the back seven times, just weeks after a Minneapolis police officer murdered George Floyd in an incident where Derek Chauvin knelt on Floyd’s neck for several minutes while Floyd said he couldn’t breathe. The task force recommendations were released the day after a jury found Chauvin guilty of murder and manslaughter.

The final report falls short of recommending a complete ban on chokeholds or no-knock warrants; it also fails to establish a clear statewide use-of-force definition for state law. Nevertheless, Democratic and Republican task force leaders say the recommendations push the envelope beyond what past bills and proposals have done.

“There’s also new legislation that is being proposed out of this, that goes beyond anything that’s been proposed before when it comes to transparency and accountability and making sure that we do our best to get bad officers off the street,” co-chair and Assembly majority leader Rep. Jim Steineke (R-Kaukana) said.

“What you will see in the report is the word consensus,” co-chair Democratic Rep. Sheila Stubbs said. “What was really important for us was to capture where each task force member was.”

Comprised of law enforcement, mental health professionals, community and faith leaders of color and others, the group nevertheless largely came to consensus on police-backed proposals. Executive director Jim Palmer of the state’s largest police union, Wisconsin Professional Police Association, noted that 15 out of the 18 had already been proposed by his group last fall, and another was a previously-submitted bill that the WPPA had backed.

“We’re pleased,” he noted. “Having said that, I think it’s also true that we recognize that more work needs to be done.”

Among other things, the report recommends criminal penalties for officers who fail to intervene or report when they see another office use what they reasonably deem to be an excessive use of force. It would also establish new reasons for officer decertification, as well as mandate psychological evaluations for officer certifications. Officers would also be subject to drug and alcohol testing after shooting or otherwise injuring or killing an individual, in another recommendation.

Chokeholds; lack of use-of-force consensus

Gov. Evers and the Black Legislative Caucus had called for a statewide ban on chokeholds last year, but task force recommendations stopped short. A ban is recommended, with an exception of self-defense and other life-or-death scenarios for an officer.

Democratic Rep. Stubbs says she now stands behind that recommendation after hearing from law enforcement in the group, who said chokeholds were a less-lethal option than guns in crisis situations.

“What we heard in that room was law enforcement say, ‘If you take away this tool from us then the only tool we have left to use is our gun,'” she explained.

Task force members had stalled on a crucial issue underpinning recommendations for things like criminal charges in use-of-force incidents: codifying the definition for use-of-force into state law. Some in the group had touted a sweeping new measure in New Jersey that requires use-of-force to be “proportional” instead of the more common standard of “necessary”. Law enforcement largely opposed the word, and Palmer argues that the rest of the New Jersey attorney general’s policy negates the true meaning of proportional.

“Officers are not required generally speaking to use force that is proportional,” he said. “They have to use whatever force is necessary.” In an earlier meeting, incoming Dane County Sheriff Kalvin Barrett noted that the concept of proportionality is difficult to assimilate with differences in officer sizes and experience.

“My size is completely different in regards to my training with my background…[it] would be completely different from an officer who is 5’5″, 115 pounds,” he said. “So that’s when we’re trying to lock in a specific definition, it’s hard because it all depends on…the totality of circumstances.”

Next Steps

The goal is to move the recommendations into bills for the legislature to take up, codifying the recommendations into state law. Meanwhile, a work group is set to continue work on establishing a recommendation for a use-of-force definition for state law.

Rep. Steineke says he expects the recommendations to be introduced as bills at committees in May, with a goal of a full vote on the floors of the legislative chambers in June. In a statement, Republican Assembly Speaker Robin Vos signaled his support.

“These certainly are not easy issues to discuss, but this subcommittee brought together community members and law enforcement to lay the groundwork for bipartisan legislation,” he wrote. “I look forward to seeing those bills introduced for consideration by the legislature.”

Recommendations

  1. Duty to intervene and report if officer observes another using force they “reasonably believe” to exceed authorized level of force, and create criminal penalty if officer fails to report
  2. Whistleblower protections for officers who report excessive use of force
  3. Bans choke holds except in life-threatening situations or in self-defense
  4. Require police departments to put their use-of-force policy online for the public
  5. Creation of a statewide use of force definition, but no consensus reached on what that definition should be
  6. Creation of an independent use-of-force review advisory board
  7. All law enforcement officers in patrol have body cameras, as well as creation of a fund to help agencies pay for them
  8. State collection of data on additional types of use-of-force incidents. The Wisconsin DOJ already collects data on use-of-force incidents defined by the FBI, starting in 2020
  9. State collection of data on no-knock search warrants
  10. Require law enforcement agencies to keep an employment file immune to nondisclosure agreements that other agencies can access when interviewing a candidate for a job
  11. Requirement for written policy regarding drug and alcohol testing after an officer shoots a civilian or otherwise causes the death or injury of an individual
  12. Require a psychological examination as a condition of law enforcement employment or certification
  13. Statewide standard for school resource officer training
  14. Requirement for crisis management training throughout law enforcement officer’s career, but no specification of hours required
  15. Create additional grounds for officer decertification, including if an officer is charged with any crime related to domestic abuse. Current state law only allows decertification upon conviction.
  16. Support grants for community engagement
  17. Support expansion of crisis program grants that involve collaboration between police officers and mental health professionals
  18. Create a legal consequence for anyone who unnecessarily asks for law enforcement help where the person has an intent for “certain adverse outcomes”