MILWAUKEE — After eight months with eight meetings, the Wisconsin Assembly Speaker’s Racial Disparities Task Force focused on creating police reform came up with 18 recommendations, while never stepping foot in the area with the most Black residents in the state.
“They don’t care,” ReBecca Burrell said. “They had the table set. They never planned on visiting the Blackest communities in Wisconsin. They never planned on making any significant change for the Blackest communities in Wisconsin. The majority of the conversation was not even about the Blackest communities. It’s like they had forgotten why we were there in the first place.”
Burrell is one of six representatives on the Task Force from Milwaukee. It’s a role she embraced, but she feels it was all a front.
“I knew going into this, it was being called a dog and pony show and I felt it was a dog and pony show,” Burrell said. “But if we have an opportunity to take protests to policy, we take that opportunity.”
Thursday, May 27, the first bills stemming from the Task Force were heard by the Committee on Criminal Justice and Public Safety in Madison. It was largely a congratulatory affair by the members of the committee.
“I applaud the whole committee and all involved with it,” Rep. Jesse James said.
“Thank you guys,” Rep. Cindi Duchow said. “Great job.”
“It was really something that I think we can all be proud of,” Rep. Jim Steineke said.
But Burrell and others from Milwaukee say the Task Force didn’t come close to making any real reforms.
“I don’t feel any satisfaction,” Kamila Ahmed with The People’s Revolution said. “I felt this was done to pat themselves on the back and make themselves feel better about their positions.”
Ahmed traveled to Madison for the public hearing. She did so because she never had the opportunity to voice her feelings to the Task Force.
Over the course of eight months, the Task Force met in Madison six times and one time each in Green Bay and Kenosha. The timeliness of the Jacob Blake officer-involved shooting made the visit to Kenosha a poignant one. But Milwaukee has had a longer history of controversial interactions between African Americans and law enforcement.
Decades ago, the deaths of Daniel Bell and Ernest Lacy brought marches for change. Even in recent memory, the deaths of Dontre Hamilton and Sylville Smith have brought on public outcry. Even the non-fatal but controversial interactions of Milwaukee Police with Sterling Brown or Frank Jude Jr. have forced calls for change.
However, the Task Force still did not travel to the state’s most diverse city, Milwaukee.
“We were trying to get buy-in from every corner of the state and that’s how it worked out,” Rep. Jim Steineke (R-Kaukauna) said. “If you look at the composition of the Task Force, a lot of members on the Task Force, both on the law enforcement side and the community side, were from the Milwaukee area. We had voices from Milwaukee represented throughout this whole process, which I believe was incredibly important.”
Rep. Shelia Stubbs (D-Madison) and Steineke are co-chairs on the Task Force. Stubbs provided a statement, remarking “We heard from many of [the victims’] families, including the family members of Sylville Smith, Ernest Lacy and Alvin Cole. In addition, we heard testimony from the families of Christopher Davis, Tony Robinson, Joel Acevedo, Jonathon Tubby, Frank Jude Jr., Joseph Biegert and Tyrese West. At this meeting, we also heard testimony from Attorney Kimberly Motley. In Kenosha, we heard testimony [from] Justin Blake, the uncle of Jacob Blake.”
The Task Force is made up of 19 members, including Co-Chairs Steineke and Stubbs. Of the 17 remaining members, nine were current or former law enforcement and six were from Milwaukee. Two of the Milwaukee representatives are also current or former law enforcement.
“No wonder they avoided the most diverse place in the state,” Rep. David Bowen (D-Milwaukee) said. “To reiterate the fact that voices in Milwaukee, especially if they are Black, especially if they are a person of color, they don’t matter. They will use every opportunity not to step up to provide the insight and the necessary solutions that we know will keep them alive.”
“We need more representation from the community in general,” Ahmed said. “They have people from the faith-based community, from law enforcement, but I’d like to see more representation from the people of Milwaukee. Maybe someone who is low income, business owners, someone from the LGBTQ community or maybe a youth on the Task Force as well to speak to their experiences living in Wisconsin. They’re being affected by how things are right now. It’s not fair to have a Task Force that’s not representative of the whole community. What’s the point if you’re not going to come here but you’re making vast decisions about the makeup of Milwaukee?”
Ahmed’s point of view was struck down during the first public hearing on these bills at the Committee on Criminal Justice and Public Safety. While Burrell says the 10 demands of The People’s Revolution were brought to the Racial Disparities Task Force, Ahmed feels the bills and recommendations were not reflective of that. So she took her time, during the public hearing section, to voice those demands and why they should be included in the bills being discussed.
However, Chair John Spiros abruptly cut her off.
“This has nothing to do with the bills,” Spiros said. “You’re giving demands that this committee doesn’t need to listen to. What we need to do, is get back to the bill.”
“The demands from the people, we are asking you as legislators, whatever else, to listen to the people. We have marched in the streets”
“We’re adjourned,” Spiros said, slamming the gavel before Ahmed could finish.
“I felt extremely disrespected,” Ahmed said. “As a person, especially as a Black woman, there are often instances where I feel my voice is not being heard. In that moment, 100 percent, I felt like my voice was not valued.”
The I-Team reached out to Spiros for comment, but never received a response.
While critics poke holes in the recommendations and bills, saying they don’t provide any more protection for African Americans in Milwaukee, others on the Task Force representing Milwaukee are taking what they can get.
“Am I satisfied with the consensus we came up with, or the ideas we came to consensus on? Yes,” Tory Lowe, a member of the Task Force said. “Will any policy make a difference? I don’t know, but it’s a start.”
“We can’t let the great be an enemy of the good,” Orlando Owens, another member of the Task Force said. “These are good recommendations. They may not be the greatest, but they’re good recommendations.”
Owens says the work being done on these recommendations and bills is historic. While the change may appear small, it’s a vast difference from what things were like before George Floyd was killed by a police officer in Minnesota.
“This time last year, we were talking about bills that were law-enforcement driven,” Owens said. “Versus, one year later, talking about law enforcement reforms. That’s an incredible juxtaposition in a year’s time. We have a long way to go still, but it’s a good step in the right direction.”
Owens looks at several areas of improvement including the creation of a Use of Force standard, setting up funding for communities to get body cameras who don’t currently have them and law enforcement personnel files being available to all other departments.
But Burrell and Ahmed feel these efforts are the bare minimum and don’t show any real commitment to protecting Black lives.
“The bills now being created seem to tiptoe around our demands and what people are asking for in general,” Ahmed said. “I felt like it was important in that moment, since I haven’t had the opportunity before, to present those demands in that formal setting so they have a clear understanding of what we’re asking them to do. It’s important for lawmakers to pay attention to those demands. It’s plainly written and states what we’re asking for the lawmakers in Wisconsin to do. There should be no confusion.”
“These are base level,” Burrell said. “One person testified something we already have in Milwaukee. OK, I agree. We should do that for the state. What I take away from that is, you didn’t come up with anything new for the Blackest communities in Wisconsin. You want uniformity? That’s fine. You can have uniformity. But there are two different types of policing; policing for my community and policing for your community.”
Rep. Bowen is introducing a package of police and justice reform bills Thursday, intent to reshape and supplement aspects of law enforcement in ways the current Task Force may have missed.