Wisconsin GOP Relents, Agrees to Special Session on Police Reform

The Wisconsin State Capitol building in Madison. (Photo via Vijay Kumar Koulampet/Wikipedia Commons)

MADISON, Wis. (CN) — Republican leaders in the Wisconsin Legislature announced Friday they will convene for a special session asked for by the Democratic governor to address rafts of police reform bills in light of the shooting of a Black man by a white police officer in Kenosha that has led to days of unrest nationwide.

Governor Tony Evers called for the special session Monday as the Badger State reeled after Jacob Blake, 29, was shot in the back seven times by officer Rusten Sheskey. Blake was trying to enter his car as Kenosha police were responding to a reported domestic incident.

In the aftermath of the Sunday shooting, Kenosha became embroiled in days of chaotic protests featuring dozens of burning cars and businesses, protesters wielding rocks and water bottles clashing with riot police who deployed tear gas and rubber bullets, and a state of emergency with hundreds of mobilized Wisconsin National Guard and federal troops.

The turbulence reached a fever pitch Tuesday night with a shooting that left two dead and another person injured. Authorities say the gunman was Kyle Rittenhouse, a 17-year-old counter-protester and self-styled militiaman who came to Kenosha from his home in Antioch, Illinois, to protect businesses and assist police in quelling the protests.

Rittenhouse has been charged with reckless and intentional homicide in Kenosha, for which he will be treated as an adult per Wisconsin law. He has a hearing in the 19th Judicial Circuit Court in Lake County, Illinois on Sept. 25 regarding his potential extradition to Wisconsin. If convicted, he faces life in prison.

Responses from Wisconsin Republicans to the idea of a special session this week have ranged from lukewarm to silent, but Friday’s announcement indicates the issue has officially been forced by the tragedies in Kenosha.

State Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, R-Juneau, who is running for Congress in November, issued a statement Friday ahead of the special session convening on Aug. 31 “in light of the events that have transpired this week in Kenosha.”

Monday’s will be a skeletal session, meaning a limited number of legislators will convene in Madison to read from a script and gavel in the session, according to a spokesman from Fitzgerald’s office. There will be no bills taken up or debates Monday, and the timeline for the extent of the session remains unclear. According to Fitzgerald, “there will be dozens of proposals that the Legislature will work through in the coming months.”

Fitzgerald said he would like to see legislation that enhances penalties for violence against police, firefighters and EMTs, as “the riots in Kenosha and Madison this week further demonstrated that first responders are performing their public service duties at great risk to their personal safety.”

“We look forward to a productive dialogue on how to improve law enforcement standards while at the same time ensuring police officers have the resources they need to keep our communities safe,” the senator said.

Evers introduced nine bills when he called for the session on Monday, including those that would ban no-knock warrants and chokeholds, require officers to undergo eight hours of de-escalation and use-of-force training annually, and make law enforcement agencies maintain employee files for each officer and disclose those files when an officer seeks a job with a new agency.

GOP lawmakers in the Badger State have been working on legislation of their own to improve police transparency and accountability.

State Senator Van Wanggaard, R-Racine, rolled out a series of legislative proposals called the Public Safety PACT on Wednesday.

The eight bills in the PACT have been developed over months and, in some cases, years, with bipartisan support according to a statement announcing the legislative package.

Highlights of the bills include the creation of a new investigatory review board to identify root causes of use-of-force incidents in order to learn from and prevent them in the future and reforms to Milwaukee and Madison’s police and fire oversight boards, as well as modifications of several of Evers’ bills.

Wanggaard, a 30-year veteran of the Racine Police Department before becoming a state senator, also included in his PACT what he termed “a maintenance of effort requirement for police funding.” That proposal would reduce a municipality’s aid payments from the state if they make cuts to police funding.

The notion drew immediate rebukes from Wisconsin liberals, including Milwaukee Alderman Khalif Rainey. Rainey did not mince words in roasting what he called “a crappy and harmful idea,” in a prepared statement released Thursday.

“So in the midst of widescale local, state, national and global public conversations about transforming how cities and communities provide police services, and with demands for action against police brutality and for better police accountability and transparency, Senator Wanggaard wants to trample local control and smack any Wisconsin municipality that decides on its own to reduce police funding!” Rainey said.

Wanggaard seemed to concede in his rollout Wednesday that the road to police reform could be a rocky one, although he hopes to pass the PACT bills early in the 2021 legislative session.

“I am hopeful this package will continue to have bipartisan support and be signed into law by the governor. But that’s not guaranteed,” he said. “I recognize that I, and supporters of the bills, need to do the legwork in the coming weeks and months to earn our votes. That’s how legislating and leadership works.”

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