Whitewashing Police Reform in Wisconsin

Phil Anderson

The Republican legislative leadership In Wisconsin has released the recommendations of the Task Force on Racial Disparities. The legislature has begun turning the recommendations into proposed changes in law. But few serious reforms will be enacted. The task force reports creates the appearance of reform while not actually addressing racial disparity in policing.

The task force was never intended to produce serious reform. We know this because two days after the shooting of Jacob Blake last August Assembly Majority Leader Jim Steineke sent an email to Assembly Speaker Robin Vos discussing the task force. He said, “My proposal is for us to sit down and figure out some guardrails. Things we could give on, things we wouldn’t. Then I’d sketch out a plan on how to proceed, making sure it takes some time but yet there will be enough activity to show progress”

Up North News obtained this email via an open records request and published a February 3, 2021 news article exposing the Republican chicanery.

At the same time Vos summarily rejected Gov. Evers call for a special session to address police reforms. Required by law to meet when a special session is called, the Assembly opened the session but immediately adjourned. After 8 months of delay, the task force has produced recommendations very similar to Gov. Ever’s original proposals. Clearly, as Steineke said in the email, the purpose was to delay and create the appearance of “progress.”

Reading the task force report confirms that serious reform was not on the agenda. Wisconsin is one of the worst states in the nation for racial disparities in housing, income, and access to health care.

Milwaukee is one of the most segregated cities in the country. Racial disparities affect policing and criminal justice actions. Blacks are 42% of the state’s prison inmates but only 6.7% of population. A black person in Madison is 10 times more likely than a white person to be arrested. Blacks are disproportionately subject to traffic stops and profiling by police. But none of these topics were addressed by the task force.

Lets look at the18 recommendations made by the task force. The official document is called the Report on the Task Force’s Subcommittee on Law Enforcement Policies and Standards. The report is divided into four categories: 1) use of force by law enforcement; 2) law enforcement oversight and accountability; 3) officer training and standards; and 4) community engagement.

Regarding use of force the task force had five recommendations. The only significant recommendation is to limit the use of choke holds – with the EXCEPTION of “life threatening situations or in self-defense.” This huge loophole will weaken, or render meaningless, the change. Every situation will simply become “self defense.”

The recommendations to create a “duty to intervene” and to report excessive use of force is good but also unlikely to change anything. Even with the additional recommendation to protect whistleblowers, few officers are likely to challenge fellow officers. No one likes to be a fink even when they are right. Historically being a whistleblower is a great way to ruin your career and your life.

The recommendation to require posting of use-of-force policy on the agency website is insignificant. State law already requires police to make a written policy available. The recommendation to create statewide use-of-force standards is also good. This is a no-brainer, but the committee could not agree on any standards despite many examples of obvious excessive use of force by police.

None of this will change any actual incidents of excessive use of force. The problems are not lack of policies. As has been clearly shown by multiple incidents, the problem is lack consequences for the excessive use of force. This is a basic MANAGEMENT problem. It is a problem with the attitudes of police officers and the “culture” of police organizations. Until the “system” changes there will be no progress on serious reforms.

Regarding police accountability, the task force recommended creating an independent use-of-force review board. BUT the board would be “ADVISORY.” Without having significant powers to act this board would be worthless. Current law provides for independent reviews and penalties for police misconduct but these procedures have not prevented abuses. Police and fire commissions protect police not citizens. There is no reason to expect anything will change with an “advisory” board.

Requiring the use of body cameras is a good recommendation. But cost will be a big issue and adequate funding will be difficult. There are issues with when cameras should be activated, equipment failure, and maintenance. In my opinion cameras are not a solution. They are a tool to document problems. REAL police reform would end police misconduct, provide oversight, ensure accountability, and make cameras unnecessary.

The task force recommended a laundry list of minor accountability and training requirements. These include: creating a statewide database of all use-of-force incidents, collecting statewide data on no-knock warrants, requiring agencies to keep employment files on officers, requiring agencies to have policies for drug/alcohol testing, making psychological exams part of the hiring process, decertifying officers guilty of domestic violence, and increasing officer training in “crisis intervention.” All these are fine and should already exist as part of good management. They will help but they are far from meaningful policing reform.

Under “community engagement” the task force recommends expanding violence prevention grants, partnerships between police agencies and mental health groups to improve crisis response, and creating “legal consequences” for nuisance or unjustified 911 calls. There is no recommendation, however, to actually require community participation in police reform or oversight.

In short the task force recommendations do not address any of the root causes of racial disparity in policing. The document does not significantly address any reforms suggested by police accountability advocates. In fact racial bias, racial disparity, racial profiling, or the disproportional stopping, searching, and arresting of people of color are not even mentioned. There is no recommendation to end any of these practices. There is no call to address the racial prejudices of police officers or even to weed out the “bad apples.”

There are no recommendations to reduce the use of force or for ending excessive use of force. It sets no standards for use of deadly force. It does not address using other, unarmed professionals when responding to social and mental health incidents. It does not suggest using unarmed officers, or technology, for traffic enforcement. It doesn’t address militarization of police, “warrior training,” or the problems associated with the extensive hiring of veterans by police departments.

The task force is a whitewash. As intended, it creates the appearance of reform while doing nothing to threaten the status quo or enact any serious changes in police practices. The public should not be fooled by this public relations stunt.