Wisconsin Gets a ‘B’ on Police Reform

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Wisconsin State Capital, Madison, WI. Photo by jpellgen via Flickr

With elections coming up, federal and state legislatures face mounting pressure to enact police reform bills, fueled by incidents involving the aggressive and sometimes fatal use of force against unarmed citizens.

But Wisconsin, the state where one of the most controversial incidents occurred—the Aug. 23 police shooting of Jacob Blake seven times in the back in the city of Kenosha—is already ahead of other parts of the country in some areas of police reform, the Waunakee Tribune reports.

In an analysis of the state’s policing policies, the newspaper noted that although several wide-ranging bills backed by the Democrat-controlled House of Representatives have been blocked by Republicans who control the state senate, Wisconsin has already introduced significant measures to curb police misbehavior that are considered models for other jurisdictions.

The state for example created a “bad cop registry” to guard against officers fired from one agency for malfeasance moving to another one, three years before a federal bill aimed at accomplishing the same thing was introduced by Democrats in Congress.

The federal bill would “document officers fired for cause,” but Wisconsin’s registry extends the concept further by identifying cops who resigned during a misconduct investigation, Wisconsin Department of Justice Training and Standards Bureau Director Steven Wagner told the Tribune.

Almost 600 Wisconsin officers have been logged into the state’s “bad cop registry” since it was established in 2017.

Wisconsin has also already enacted transparency measures, such as an Open Record law that makes information about fired or terminated cops publicly available.

Similar measures are regularly opposed by police unions elsewhere in the country, but not by the state’s union—the Wisconsin Professional Police Association.

The association also, for instance, supports banning the use of chokeholds, although they are still legal in Wisconsin.

Henry Smart III, an assistant professor of public administration and policy at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York, said laws and policy governing policing in Wisconsin are better than many other states.

“There’s room for improvement,” he said, but added that the state should “give yourself a B, because you’re trying.”

Wisconsin also started collecting data on “police force incidents that resulted in deaths, serious injury or firearm discharges at or towards people,” reported the Tribune.

Many police critics say law enforcement must go further in addressing the consequences of systemic racism through better training and recruitment, and a movement to “defund” police departments through carving out money from public safety budgets to counselling and mental health services has picked up traction across the country.

But the criticism has become enmeshed in a larger political debate over “law and order,” spearheaded by President Donald Trump and other advocates of a return to tough-on-crime approaches.

Wisconsin Gov. Tony Evers, a Democrat, has said his state needed to move forward on addressing the core systemic issues at the heart of policing reform.

“Our country promises the opportunity of justice and equity, and it’s time for us to deliver on that promise,” Evers said in June when he opened discussion of the proposed policing changes. “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.”

TCR News Reporting intern Laura Bowen contributed to this summary.

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