Only a few lawmakers attended the special session of the Wisconsin State Legislature on policing reform Monday. No debates or voters were held and the session adjourned shortly after a Senate clerk and a few Assembly lawmakers gaveled it in. Gov. Tony Evers had called for the legislature to convene following the police shooting of Jacob Blake, a Black man, in Kenosha, WI.
Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, R-Juneau, announced that the legislature will work through proposals in the coming months. That includes a package of bills introduced by Sen. Van Wanggaard, R-Racine.
Wanggaard, who represents Racine and Kenosha Counties, had called on Evers to supply 1,500 Wisconsin National Guard troops based on a request from the Kenosha County Board of Supervisors. Wangaard asked Evers on Aug. 26 to reconsider Trump’s offer to supply federal troops if the National Guard could not fulfill the request.
Wangaard cited “Wisconsin’s inability to control the riots” following looting and burnt buildings in Kenosha that stemmed from protests against Blake’s shooting. Terry Flores from Kenosha News reported that Kenosha Mayor John Antaramian is requesting $30 million in state funding to help Kenosha rebuild from violence and damage. Antaramian said most property destruction was caused by “violent demonstrators and rioters, led largely by people from outside the city.”
Fitzgerald proposed his own ideas for legislation that would enhance penalties for violence perpetrated against police, firefighters, and EMTs.
“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,” Fitzgerald said in his statement.
Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester, also announced Assembly Leader Jim Steineke, R-Kaukauna, would lead a Speaker’s Task Force on racial disparities, educational opportunities, public safety, and police policies and standards. Rep. Dave Considine, D-Baraboo, responded to Vos’ announcement.
“We are seeing real leadership from sports teams like the Bucks, yet elected leaders are delaying any meaningful change. My colleagues believe that proposing a task force will pacify people. What they do not realize is that the time for inaction ended long ago, and people will not be soothed by a do-nothing committee,” Considine said.
The Milwaukee Bucks boycotted their playoff game on Aug. 26 in protest of Blake’s shooting in nearby Kenosha. The Milwaukee Brewers also chose not to play on the same day in solidarity.
“We are calling for justice for Jacob Blake and demand the officers be held accountable. For this to occur, it is imperative for the Wisconsin State Legislature to reconvene after months of inaction and take up meaningful measures to address issues of police accountability, brutality and criminal justice reform,” the Bucks said in a statement.
The Wisconsin Legislative Black Caucus asked Evers for a special session on justice reform on June 9, following the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis. Gov. Evers and Lt. Gov. Mandela Barnes introduced proposals that include establishing statewide use of force standards, requiring law enforcement to develop policies to ban the use of chokeholds and prohibiting no-knock search warrants.
Members of the caucus, including Sen. LaTonya Johnson, D-Milwaukee, spoke at a press conference before the session began.
“We can no longer sit idly by while Republicans continue to treat our lives, our people, our communities as if they don’t matter,” Johnson said, citing disparities in health care and other inequalities faced by Black Wisconsinites.
President Trump visited Kenosha on Tuesday despite Evers’ request that he reconsider. Evers said he was concerned that Trump’s visit would require a “re-direction” of resources as Kenosha recovers.
“I, along with other community leaders who have reached out, are concerned about what your presence will mean for Kenosha and our state. I am concerned your presence will only hinder our healing. I am concerned your presence will only delay our work to overcome division and move forward together,” Evers said in a statement Sunday.
Evers also acknowledged the grief in Kenosha and communities across Wisconsin after the shooting of Blake combined with the death of two protestors “at the hands of an out-of-state militant.” Evers added.
Lawmakers’ reactions to the events in Kenosha, and the inaction on the special session, reflect growing partisanship and gridlock between the Democratic governor and Republican-led legislature. Evers released a statement following the adjournment of the special session calling for “action and results” and not another task force.
“Earlier this year, Gov. Evers called special sessions on support for farmers and the agriculture industry and funding for education, respectively. Republicans in the Legislature ultimately adjourned these special sessions without sending any bills to the governor's desk. It has been 138 days since the Legislature last passed a bill,” his press statement read.
Democratic legislators, including Assembly Democratic Leader Gordon Hintz, D-Oshkosh, also blamed Republicans for refusing to take action.
“Republicans have given up on governing for this session despite serious issues facing our state,” Hintz said in a statement.
Sen. Chris Larson, D-Milwaukee, also launched a statewide petition demanding the legislature reconvene to take action on the pandemic, racial equity in policing, economic despair and unemployment, and emergency education funding.
The Assembly and Senate stand in recess until Thursday, Sept 3., leaving the session open.
Hope Karnopp is the news manager and dabbles in music reviews at The Daily Cardinal. She previously hosted the Cardinal Call for WORT-FM and edited state news.