Jacob Blake's impact on Wisconsin legislation, 1 year later

The extent of the impact those bills will have depends on who you talk to.
jacob blake
Posted at 7:14 AM, Aug 23, 2021
and last updated 2021-08-23 23:33:07-04

KENOSHA — As shots rang out in Kenosha on Aug. 23, 2020, the events over the next few days were a whirlwind.

The immediate impact forever stained on the City of Kenosha: two deaths, one injury, a presidential visit, a presidential nominee visit, tens of millions in damages. The long-term impacts happened over 100 miles away, at the state capital.

Democratic Gov. Tony Evers tried to call a special session after George Floyd's death to get legislation on police reform. It was shut down by the Republican-led legislature.

Three months later, the conversation was in Wisconsin's yard. Again, the governor called for a special session. Again, the Republican-led legislature denied to take up the conversation, opting to create a Racial Disparities Task Force to look into what changes could be made. Eight months later, the group came up with 18 recommendations for change and, as of early August, five bills have been signed into law.

The extent of the impact those bills will have depends on who you talk to.

"It just fundamentally depends on your perspective of law enforcement," Jamiles Lartey, Staff Writer for The Marshall Project, said. "If you believe that policing is a just enterprise at its core and that the instances of bad policing that we see, owe to officers being trained in harmful methods and they can just trade them in for unharmful ones, from that vantage point, this is all very constructive change."

"If you're more critical of law enforcement as an institution or of the ways that policing has come to dominate our civic response to social problems, I think a lot of this will feel more like window dressing," he said.

The five laws passed in Wisconsin, Acts 48, 49, 50, 51 and 75, all deal with police reform policies, including chokehold bans with a life or death exception, making use of force policies publicly accessible, annual reporting on use of force to the Department of Justice, a $600,000 Community Oriented Policing (COP) House grant program and the creation of a use of force standard. Lartey says comparing to the rest of the country, Wisconsin is right in the middle.

"At this point, this basket of issues, sanctity of life, duty to intervene, banning chokeholds, that's pretty much the McDonald's of police reform," Lartey said. "That's ubiquitous, that's everywhere, every place that's really taken on reform."

Hearing from the elected officials involved in the creation of these bills, they'd tell you otherwise.

"Here in Wisconsin, we're ahead of the curve in Wisconsin," Sen. Van Wanggaard (R-Racine) said. "Training and standards through the training and standards bureau at the state level, that create a baseline for all officers in the state to comply with. We have a lot of states that come to us to obtain that type of training and see how we do things."

"It at least made there be an interest or a will to have conversations, at the very least," Sen. Lena Taylor (D-Milwaukee) said. "What it did not do was address all of the issues that we could have."

Wanggaard and Taylor are on the opposite side of the aisle and quite possibly even farther a part when it comes to issues on police reform.

Wanggaard called Breonna Taylor, George Floyd and Jacob Blake criminals who would still be alive and unharmed had they complied with police orders, specifically saying George Floyd died from fentanyl in his system and not from Chauvin's knee on his neck.

"The individual in Minneapolis, Floyd, the guy's a criminal," Wanggaard said. "Look at his background. He's a total criminal. He didn't deserve to die but he didn't die because the officer had his knee on his back, neck area. He died because he was saturated with fentanyl. To blame all that on law enforcement? No. But was that something good to see on national TV? Absolutely not. We don't police that way here."

Medical Examiners testified Floyd died from cardiopulmonary arrest complicated by law enforcement subduing, restraining, and using a neck compression and Chauvin has been found guilty for George Floyd's death.

Taylor acknowledges systemic issues exist that impacted all three cases, falling on the side of the three African Americans who were either killed or injured by police officers.

"We definitely have different views on that," Taylor said comparing herself to Wanggaard. "But we came to a place to say, what can we do that potentially at least lays a foundation to say, we support law enforcement that does things right. He supports law enforcement and I support law enforcement when doing things right. What you found was not something that was to the far left or to the far right. You found something more in the center to figure out how to create a standard that can exist across our state."

However, when looking at the individual laws passed so far, a majority make little change.

To start, the chokehold ban is something Wanggaard says is already in place for every single law enforcement official trained in the State of Wisconsin.

"We have never in the State of Wisconsin taught chokeholds," Wanggaard said. "We haven't taught that as a way to take someone into custody. What this piece of legislation does is to say, no department can train with chokeholds. We never have."

Therefore, from an outsider's perspective, the state senators spent over a year passing a bill that was already on the books, according to Wanggaard.

The chokehold ban isn't the only new law that is largely accepted by law enforcement agencies across the state.

Publicly accessible use of force policies are largely already posted on the internet, either by departments themselves or, as Lartey mentions, from journalists who have made open records requests for the policies and they now exist online in perpetuity.

The annual reporting on use of force to the DOJ started in March of 2020, before Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, Jacob Blake or Daunte Wright were involved in critical incidents with police. The bill was signed and applauded by legislators in June, 15 months after the DOJ made it a requirement.

"By doing bills like this and talking about things that we've identified that are concerns for all of our constituents, we want to make sure it's clear that a department has a policy and procedure for use of force," Wanggaard said. "Most of them do that but now all of them will be required. It's going to add uniformity to that."

"We're not playing horseshoes," Taylor said. "Let's not get close. We want to say what the policy is and then we continue to grow from there. I wasn't going to let the perfect get in the way of the better, even if some can say, this is not good enough. I respect all of that but in the end, it really boils down to, are we going to put our line in the sand."

So with 60 percent of the bills passed by lawmakers already in place for the most part, it's again up to who you talk to on whether Wisconsin met the moment. Even in talking to Wanggaard and Taylor themselves.

"When you look at the things we've done, most bills that came forward so far, I don't know that would change any of the circumstances for the three things (Breonna Taylor, George Floyd and Jacob Blake) we just mentioned, short of those individuals complying with officers. We're ahead of the curve. We have a lot of states that come to us to obtain that type of training and see how we do things, our models on how we do things here."

"I think we could have done better," Taylor said. "I'm glad to be a part of saying we did something, but I by no means waive this as we're champions of doing the most we could. The sad part is, we probably did more than most places."

More than some according to Lartey, but far from the most progressive.

The State of Washington, Lartey says, "basically did all the things that were done in Wisconsin," and then some.

Lartey says Washington increased accountability measures, making it easier to decertify officers, created a new state agency to investigate police use of deadly force and made it easier to sue individual officers.

"They also raised the bar for forceful detention," Lartey said. "In other words, grabbing, throwing down or chasing someone who doesn't want to be questioned by police. Now, officers need probable cause to do that versus just reasonable suspicion. That may sound very technical and minor but legal scholars will tell you, those are very different standards and, if it's enforced, that could actually change police encounters a lot."

Lartey also points to Colorado as a more progressive police reform state.

"[Colorado] has gone further on accountability, reducing the barriers to file state civil suits against officers and a number of bills to cut down on police interactions with the public. It's not law yet, but I know a bill that recently passed in the Minnesota House that would ban traffic stops over petty equipment violations like air fresheners, that kind of thing."

2020 was arguably the most pivotal moment in this generation for discussions on racial disparities. After George Floyd was killed by police, Minneapolis became the epicenter for calls for police reform. Lawmakers in Minnesota made change quickly: its new use of force law says "...use of deadly force... shall be exercised and with respect for human rights and dignity and for the sanctity of every human life."

The changes included when someone is running away from officers, unless they think that person will cause immediate harm or death, officers can not use deadly force. They also implemented a chokehold ban, all of which was signed into law by late July 2020, less than two months after Floyd was killed.

In Kentucky, after Breonna Taylor was killed after Louisville Police Officers executed a no-knock search warrant, lawmakers limited the use of the tactic.

Now, officers are essentially banned from using no-knock search warrants unless "giving notice prior to entry will endanger the life or safety of any person." It also allows the use of no-knock warrants if giving notice could result in the destruction of evidence, but only if the person is suspected of a violent crime.

This was signed into law 13 months after Taylor was killed.

"[Wisconsin] lawmakers, comparatively speaking to the big picture in the United States, it's like a lot of the low hanging fruit that was available," Lartey said.

While three of the five bills were already in practice for a majority of departments in the state, those three laws are now more explicit and uniform across the entire state.

The other two have a bit more weight. Taylor is excited about the potential for the $600,000 COP House grant which could establish police hubs within neighborhoods to increase positive police community relations.

It has its concerns. The $600,000 is eligible for any city with a population over 30,000, which equates to 26 cities in the state. If evenly distributed, each city would get about $23,000.

"It's not a lot," Taylor admits. "Across multiple communities, it's not going to go far. It's going for the concept of acquiring property and doing the work for the COP House. It's not [more money] for law enforcement. However, if they buy a house from the city, they might have to do some renovations on, maybe make it a workforce training program or maybe even have some people reentering the workforce work on that property and they can take that $23,000 and make it go pretty far."

Taylor also encourages constituents to believe this is the start of something bigger.

"We don't get everything we want," Taylor said. "But if we move even an inch, a millimeter, is it not better than staying in the same place?"

Taylor and Wanggaard hope to keep the ball rolling. In addition to these five laws, they both are hoping to get more of the suggestions by the Racial Disparities Task Force passed into law. Wanggaard is hopeful for a bill related to an independent police involved shooting board where a third party of investigators would respond to officer involved shootings, like Jacob Blake's.

"It's not for civil or criminal investigations but is there something in the process that went wrong?" Wanggaard said. "Something we could change in training, how we use a piece of equipment or whether we're getting good training for verbal judo to talk people down? Maybe a better understanding of drugs out there and how it's affecting people."

Another bill is related to regulating Fire and Police Commissions across the state.

"It's the FPC's job to help put in some preventative measures," Taylor said. "In the same way to collect data to figure out what we can do different or praise what we did right, you don't know that if you don't look. My father has a saying, you can't expect what you don't inspect. The FPC should be inspecting what happens so they can create the expectation through their standards of what they should do."

But as all of Southeast Wisconsin reflects on the year that was after Jacob Blake was shot by Kenosha Police Officer Rusten Sheskey, seeing how elected officials stepped up to meet the moment, Lartey says it still may be too soon to pass judgment on these changes in law.

"I think the mere passing of laws and rules doesn't really give us a good sense of whether a moment has been met or not," Lartey said. "How those policies and laws are enforced, what mechanisms are in place for adjudicating them, that has a lot to do with meeting the moment."

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