State legislature works across party lines to address racial disparities The Badger Herald

The Wisconsin State Legislature passed three bills in March aiming to narrow some of the state’s racial disparities in law enforcement policies in a rare consensus between Democrats and Republicans, which were all signed into law by Gov. Tony Evers.

Assembly Bills 329, 333 and 335 were inspired by recommendations from the Speaker’s Task Force on Racial Disparitiesmaking up three of the eight reforms adopted by the task force. The eight-bill package focuses on law enforcement policies other improving the educational system for children and teachers of color, according to the Wisconsin State Assembly.

the Speaker’s Task Force on Racial Disparities held its first meeting in October 2020 and was created with the mission to tackle racial disparities that exist and impact people across Wisconsin, according to the task force website. Representatives Jim Steineke (R-Kaukauna) and Sheila Stubbs (D-Madison) are the co-chairs of the task force.

Since the first meeting, the task force has split up into two subcommittees — the Law Enforcement Policies and Standards subcommittee and the Education and Workforce Development subcommittee, according to the task force website. Both subcommittees work with the intention of better addressing the goals of the task force at large.

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Assembly Bill 329 will require the Department of Justice to obtain information from law enforcement agencies and prepare an annual report to the legislature about the issuance of search warrants and the use of no-knock or unannounced entries upon execution of search warrants, according to the legislation.

This differs from current lawin which a law enforcement officer executing a search warrant must knock and announce before entering — unless the law enforcement officer has a reasonable suspicion that knocking and announcing will be dangerous, according to legislation.

In a statement to The Badger Herald, Stubbs said she views this bill as a key step towards transparency and accountability for law enforcement agencies.

Assembly Bill 333 also addresses law enforcement agencies through expanding a crisis grant program, which provides funding for emergency mental health services in rural areas. The grants help establish crisis intervention programs to reduce the amount of “inappropriate or unnecessary psychiatric hospitalizations,” according to the program’s action memo. Under current lawthe program provides $250,000 every two years to counties or regions composed of multiple counties.

This law will expand the program to direct the Department of Human Services to award grants to counties, municipalities or other regions to establish and enhance law enforcement’s and behavioral health services’ emergency response collaboration programs, according to the approved legislation.

According to Stubbs, crisis management and training are effective and necessary for law enforcement. Communities will benefit from providing officers with the skills to handle crises with sound and reasonable judgment, Stubbs said.

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Assembly Bill 335 will require the Department of Justice to award grants to law enforcement agencies for the sole purpose of purchasing body cameras for use by officers whose primary duties are patrolling, according to the legislation. Law enforcement agencies are presently not required by law to have their officers wear body cameras, according to current law.

This new law will require officers to use cameras in situations where they are in contact with a member of the public while enforcing laws or conducting an investigation, according to the legislation.

Evers signed all three bills along with five others from the Task Force into law in March.

“Nearly two years ago, the Speaker’s Task Force on Racial Disparities began working to improve relationships between communities of color and law enforcement officers,” Rep. Steineke said in a statement. “It is great to see three more proposals make their way across the finish line, and I applaud the efforts of everyone involved, especially members of law enforcement and the general public, who participated collaboratively to help move our state forward.”

According to University of Wisconsin Assistant Law Professor Ion Meyn, the widespread distribution of body cameras is a necessary step. Through body cameras, an understanding is gained of both the situation and circumstances, Meyn said.

“Video is essential from the point of view of law enforcement accountability, but also from the perspective of understanding incidents,” Meyn said.

Stubbs said body cameras are not the final solution to ending police brutality or holding officers accountable, however, they do play an important role in addressing accountability. Assembly Bill 335 will ensure that agencies can fund body cameras, moving in the direction of accountability, Stubbs said.

According to UW Law School Professor Keith FindleyAssembly Bills 329, 333 and 335 are an effort to chip away at some of the systemic problems that impact individuals in Wisconsin. Specifically, the bills will help mitigate the harmful effects of over-policing of marginalized communities, who are more likely to be over-policed, Findley said.

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The three bills were passed using bipartisan cooperation — something Stubbs said is critical to making anything law in Wisconsin. The process of developing the bills took months of ongoing conversations with community leaders, religious leaders and experts in law enforcement, Stubbs explained.

Moving forward, Findley said bipartisan cooperation will be essential to passing laws that can protect BIPOC individuals in Wisconsin. Typically, representatives from the Democratic Party have pushed for BIPOC protections but have then been outnumbered by the Republican-controlled legislature, Findley said.

Despite the success of the eight-bill package, Findley said fostering bipartisan cooperation on typical issues may be difficult moving forward.

“I can’t say how both sides may view the remaining items recommended by the subcommittee, but my guess is it [bipartisan collaboration] will become increasingly difficult,” Findley said. “It is easiest to pass on those things in which there is most agreement.”

To Stubbs and Steineke, the task force is proof that bipartisan reform can be made a reality, serving the people of Wisconsin and putting progress above politics.

“While there is more work to be done, the eight bills signed into law are a great step forward in addressing racial disparities in Wisconsin,” Rep. Steineke said in a statement. “They stand as a testament to what Republicans and Democrats can achieve together when they put politics aside and are willing to have tough conversations.”

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