Wis. Governor Calls Session On Police Reform; Republicans Refuse To Show

Aug 31, 2020
Originally published on August 31, 2020 9:15 am

Updated 10:14 a.m. ET

The Wisconsin state Legislature is scheduled to officially convene Monday for a special session on police training requirements and policy standards. But GOP lawmakers aren't expected to be present, nor are any debates or votes expected to happen.

The special session, called by Gov. Tony Evers, who Sunday asked President Trump not to visit the state, puts on display the policy stalemate between the Democratic governor and the state's Republican-controlled Legislature after a police officer shot Jacob Blake in Kenosha, Wis., a little more than a week ago.

The shooting spurred several days of unrest in the city, including the shooting deaths of two protesters.

For months, Evers has urged lawmakers to consider bills that would set statewide standards for police use of force and ban chokeholds and no-knock warrants, but Republicans have argued they need more time to craft their own proposals.

Less than 24 hours after Blake's shooting, the governor signed an executive order compelling the Legislature to convene in a special session. However, neither state law nor the state Constitution requires lawmakers to participate in debate or to vote on any bills during a special session. They may simply convene and immediately adjourn. They did just that for a session Evers called last November to address state gun laws.

Republican state Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, who is in the middle of a campaign for Congress, was silent for several days following Blake's shooting and the governor's call. On Friday, his office confirmed the Senate will officially convene on Monday without any senators present.

In a prepared statement, Fitzgerald said he expects lawmakers to consider a variety of proposals related to policing "in the coming months." He said he would like those bills to include legislation to increase penalties for violence against police.

"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," he said.

Another proposal from a different Republican state senator, unveiled last week, would penalize local governments for shifting money from their law enforcement budgets to other things such as public health or education initiatives — a move many activists are calling "defunding the police."

State Assembly Speaker Robin Vos argues that Evers is being disingenuous and partisan in calling the special session.

"We have an opportunity to bring people together to find solutions," Vos said shortly after Evers called the special session. "Instead, the governor is choosing to turn to politics again by dictating liberal policies that will only deepen the divisions in our state."

As an alternative, Vos announced a legislative task force on "racial disparities, educational opportunities, public safety, and police policies and standards." Similar past initiatives on subjects such as homelessness and adoption have taken several months to produce legislation.

Meanwhile, Wisconsin Democrats are meeting Republicans' resistance to convene with anger and frustration.

"We've got 400 years of systemic racism in this country, and if we don't do something about it, we'll be repeating Kenosha in cities all over our country and in our state," Evers said Thursday. "I'm counting on the Republicans to show up next Monday."

Democratic state Sen. LaTonya Johnson of Milwaukee issued a statement last week that she was "sick to [her] stomach" at the GOP's resistance.

"The question for us, Wisconsin, is when are we going to make Republicans do their jobs, or do we continue to sit idly by and watch this state burn?" she said.

Late last week, a woman from Burlington, Wis., began a petition drive to try to recall Gov. Evers, citing in part his response to the aftermath of Blake's shooting. The state Republican Party is not affiliated, but state Democrats did sharply criticize the move.

Copyright 2020 Wisconsin Public Radio. To see more, visit Wisconsin Public Radio.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Wisconsin's Democratic governor, Tony Evers, has called lawmakers back into the Capitol in Madison today. He wants to address police reform. This special session comes after a police officer in Kenosha, Wis., shot Jacob Blake, a Black man, multiple times in the back. Blake's father, Jacob Blake Sr., has been demanding systemic change.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JACOB BLAKE SR: We're going to the top, y'all. We're going to make legislation happen because that's the only thing that they recognize.

INSKEEP: How likely is new legislation? Well, Laurel White covers the state Capitol for Wisconsin Public Radio, and she's on the line. Good morning.

LAUREL WHITE, BYLINE: Good morning.

INSKEEP: So the governor has called back lawmakers into special session. But what does he want them to do?

WHITE: So he wants them to take up nine different bills that he introduced earlier this summer in response to Black Lives Matter protests. They would do things like ban police use of chokeholds, ban no-knock warrants and create a variety of standards for use of force in Wisconsin - so annual training requirements for use of force for officers, statewide use of force database to track incidents and statewide standards for all police departments to implement.

INSKEEP: But I just want to remember a bit of recent history here. Wisconsin had an election in 2018. Democrats did really well. But Republicans had drawn the districts, so they got to keep the legislature even while losing a lot of votes. Now the Democratic governor is asking Republicans to act. Do they want to?

WHITE: They don't. So they were pretty quick to push back on the governor's special session call. Essentially, they're saying that they need more time to look at proposals, both the governor's proposals and to craft their own. They say that this is something that they don't want to address superficially, that, you know, there needs to be some deliberate attention paid to it. They're saying that the governor's call is kind of disingenuous and partisan because he hasn't tried to work with them to create bipartisan proposals. The governor's comeback is that he believes the proposals are bipartisan.

INSKEEP: Haven't Republicans come out with their own proposals that are more on the line of protecting police?

WHITE: They are. So we got some more details late last week. The Senate majority leader, in particular, put out a proposal, something he said he wanted included in a package of bills whenever it was considered that would actually increase penalties for violence against police officers. He says that that's something that's needed in Wisconsin after seeing what's happened in Kenosha over the past week or so.

INSKEEP: And they're also speaking up about this movement to defund the police, which typically means reducing police budgets. Right?

WHITE: That's right. There's another Republican bill introduced by a different senator that would actually penalize local governments for shifting money from their law enforcement offices to other departments, something that, you know, protesters are calling defund the police.

INSKEEP: Has there been much public reaction to all of this?

WHITE: There has been. So the Milwaukee Bucks made a pretty high-profile call out of the legislature. They refused to take the court for a playoff game, said lawmakers need to go to the Capitol and do their job. Democratic state lawmakers have obviously been very frustrated along with the governor. A Democratic state senator from Milwaukee actually released a statement last week saying that she believes that Republicans are, quote, "sitting idly by and watching the state burn."

INSKEEP: Laurel White is the state Capitol reporter for Wisconsin Public Radio in Madison, Wis. Thanks so much.

WHITE: Absolutely. Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.