Tony Evers calls special session on reducing police brutality after shooting of Jacob Blake

MADISON – Wisconsin Gov. Tony Evers is calling lawmakers into session to take action on a package of bills aimed at reducing the prevalence of police brutality a day after a police officer repeatedly shot a Black Kenosha man.

The move would ban police chokeholds and no-knock search warrants and make it harder for overly aggressive officers to move from one job to another.

The Kenosha shooting comes less than three months after the death of George Floyd, a Black Minneapolis man who was killed by a police officer after being accused of using counterfeit money.  

Both events sparked protests and riots against police brutality and its disproportionate effect on Black Americans. 

“This is familiar violence to too many of us,” said Lt. Gov. Mandela Barnes, the state’s first Black lieutenant governor. “This didn’t start with George Floyd, unfortunately. It’s been around far longer than him and if we don’t do anything this will continue as we saw yesterday.” 

But Republicans who control the state Legislature and Evers don’t see eye to eye on the moment’s urgency.

While the governor is asking lawmakers to come in to take up legislation within a week, Assembly Speaker Robin Vos said Monday it’s important to wait for more information about the incident and said he’s forming a task force focusing on racial disparities, educational opportunities, public safety, and police policies and standards.

Such task forces typically take months to develop legislation. 

“This is not a time for political posturing or to suggest defunding law enforcement. When a community is hurting, the most important thing that we can do is to listen,” Vos, R-Rochester, said in statement. “We must find a path forward as a society that brings everyone together.”

Sen. Van Wanggaard, a Republican from Racine who is a former law enforcement officer, said Evers’ demand for action was “irresponsible and inflammatory.”

“Exhale,” Wanggaard said. “We must let law and reason, not emotion, guide the next steps.”

Republicans have rejected previous special sessions convened by Evers. A governor can force lawmakers to hold a special session, but he cannot make them to act. Lawmakers can convene and terminate the special session with just a couple of members present.

Last year they immediately shut down a special session on gun background checks in largely empty chambers. In April, they did the same when Evers asked them to delay the spring election for state Supreme Court because of the coronavirus pandemic.

Evers said he wants unified leadership on the issue.

“Frankly, I should not need to call a special session,” he said in an address from the state Capitol. “Leaders show up. Leaders do the work that needs to be done and that the people demand of them. But we cannot wait for Republican leadership to show up for work because clearly they intend to keep us waiting. That’s not going to cut it.”

An aide to Fitzgerald did not answer questions about whether the state Senate plans to take up the measures. 

Evers said he left a voicemail for Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald and didn’t get the feeling Vos was on board.

“I didn’t sense that he was going to. In general, he seemed to be unmoved by my request,” Evers said. 

And Vos signaled the idea was dead.

“When I spoke to Governor Evers on the phone today, I asked him to work with the Legislature in a deliberate and open process through the task force,” Vos said in a statement after Evers’ press conference. “Instead, the governor is choosing to turn to politics again by dictating liberal policies that will only deepen the divisions in our state.”

Vos suggested in a statement he wants to wait to consider acting until after the 30-day period during which the Wisconsin Department of Justice completes its investigation into the shooting. 

“It’s essential that we get a complete picture of what happened,” Vos said. “The Kenosha community deserves to know the totality of the circumstances leading up to the shooting. Before passing judgement, we have to know if the shocking 20-second video clip shared with the media tells the whole story.”

The nine bills were proposed by Evers in early June following Floyd’s death, but he did not call a special session at the time and lawmakers did not debate them. 

Kenosha was torched in rage on Sunday night after police repeatedly shot Blake. Blake was flown to Froedtert Hospital in Milwaukee and remains in serious condition. 

Tyrone Muhammad, a member of the group Ex-Cons for Community and social change, said Blake’s father told him Blake was out of surgery and was expected to survive.

The Wisconsin Department of Justice’s Division of Criminal Investigation said early Monday that the involved officers have been placed on administrative leave.

The video shows Blake walking toward the vehicle as two officers follow him with their guns drawn. 

As Blake opens the door to get into the vehicle, an officer grabs his shirt to hold him still, then appears to shoot him in the direction of his back at close range. Seven shots are heard, followed by a car horn.

Jim Palmer, executive director of the Wisconsin Professional Police Association, said the proposals put forward by Evers and Vos should be considered seriously. Palmer criticized Evers for painting law enforcement with a broad brush before knowing all the facts involved in Sunday’s incident. 

“We understand how the video is emblematic of an experience that is familiar to many Americans of color, and we regret the hurt that this incident and those like it continue to inflict,” Palmer said in a statement. “We urge the public to respect this independent process before rendering judgment. Little can be gained from painting law enforcement with a broad brush, as some have done – including Gov. Evers.”

Palmer said the state’s largest police union respects concerns over officers’ use of force, but “we hope the pursuit of social justice does not come at the expense of procedural justice.”

The Division of Criminal Investigation said in a news release early Monday morning that it will try to provide a report of the incident to the prosecutor within 30 days.

Among the bills proposed by Evers is a measure that would make it easier for people to sue those who unnecessarily call the police in attempts to harass other people or get them to leave a place they’re allowed to be.

The proposal comes after officers were called for “BBQing while Black” and “birdwatching while Black” incidents.

Also in Evers’ package is a bill that would require those seeking jobs in law enforcement to turn over their employment files from previous policing jobs. That’s meant to prevent officers with troubled histories from moving from one agency to another.

The requirement for employment files would also apply to workers in jails and juvenile detention facilities.

Another bill would require law enforcement agencies to have use-of-force standards that say their primary duty is to preserve life and allow the use of deadly force only as a last resort. The policies would require officers to use the least amount of force necessary to counteract a threat and would require officers to try to prevent their colleagues from using unreasonable levels of force.

That proposal is identical to another bill that Evers recently announced he was backing — and an idea vociferously opposed by Wanggaard.

Other bills would require all use-of-force policies to be available online and would require an annual report on all police encounters involving the use of force.

Another bill would require officers to complete eight hours of training a year on de-escalation techniques.

In addition, Evers wants the Department of Justice to hand out $1 million in grants to violence-prevention organizations.

Gina Barton, Patrick Marley and Meg Jones of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel contributed to this report. 

Contact Molly Beck at molly.beck@jrn.com. Follow her on Twitter at @MollyBeck.