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Lawmakers pass first police reform bills since summer of protests

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MADISON (WKOW) -- The Wisconsin State Senate took up nearly a half-dozen related bills Tuesday in the first action the full legislature has taken on police reform since the murder of George Floyd and shooting of Jacob Blake prompted massive protests across the state last year.

The five bills mostly had widespread support although two of the bills drew disagreement from some Democrats and police reform activists.

The bills with full support included a measure that would require the state Department of Justice to begin tracking statewide uses of force - including shootings and incidents when an officer points a gun at someone - and issue an annual report outlining such cases.

Another bill would require local departments to make their use-of-force policies publicly available either on the department or municipality's website.

Another bill would mandate individual officers make their employment files open to other departments during the hiring process; the effort there is to keep cops with a history of misconduct from bouncing from one department to another.

Those bills all passed the Senate unanimously, 33-0, and are expected to get the signature of Gov. Tony Evers.

Much of the debate on the Senate floor centered around a bill altering the makeup of the police and fire commissions in Madison and Milwaukee.
The bill would require the commissions in both cities to dedicate two commissioner spots to candidates on lists submitted by the cities' police and fire unions, respectively.

Democratic Senators Tim Carpenter (D-Milwaukee) and Chris Larson (D-Milwaukee) both voiced support for an amendment that would require commissioners to live in the city whose departments they oversee.

"Those who are making hiring and firing decisions for those who, frankly, are given power over our lives with the power to extinguish a neighbor's life, they should be your neighbor," Larson said.

Sen. Van Wanggaard (R-Racine), who co-authored the bills with Democratic Senator Lena Taylor (D-Milwaukee), noted the commissions as they're currently composed do not have any such requirements.

Democrats said it would make up for GOP lawmakers under the Walker administration, removing residency requirements for police officers and firefighters.

"No commissioner anywhere in the state, including in the city of Milwaukee or Madison, has a residency requirement," Wanggaard said. "So a commissioner in Madison could be in Timbuktu, for that matter or live there."

The bill passed 22-11 with all Democrats except Taylor voting against it.

Some activists also took issue with a bill that would make funding available for community-oriented-policing houses, which allow officers to operate out of set locations in residential areas, in different cities.

Critics say the plan gives departments even more funding when they already get enough money while supporters say 'COP houses' have proven valuable tools in building trust between officers and residents.
Despite those concerns, the bill still passed the Senate unanimously.

A number of other bills are still waiting to be heard, including legislation creating an independent use-of-force advisory board that would review all deadly incidents and offer recommendations on how to reduce risk in similar situations moving forward.

Another bill banning chokeholds currently allows exceptions for cases where an officer fears for their safety; some Democrats have said they object to keeping the that exception in place.

A task force has also yet to reach consensus on a statewide definition of excessive force.

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A. J. Bayatpour

Capitol Bureau Chief

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