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Wisconsin’s bipartisan police reform bills give community demands the run-around

Advocates for decarceration say that Governor Evers already has the power to make needed changes to the prison system.

Photo: Members of Milwaukee-based groups Forum for Understanding Prisons, and Abolish MKE, and Madison groups Black Umbrella Global and Free the 350 Bail Fund led a protest to Defund the DOC on June 10.

One June 19, 2020, the Juneteenth Flag was hoisted above the Wisconsin State Capitol for the first time. That same day, Democratic Governor Tony Evers and Lieutenant Governor Mandela Barnes introduced 9 bills in response to nationwide demands for police reform. As uprisings for racial justice continued throughout the summer, the bills languished in the Republican-controlled Legislature.

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On August 24, the day after Jacob Blake was shot and paralyzed by a police officer in Kenosha, sparking renewed protests and pressure for legislative action, Evers and Barnes called a special session of the Legislature to consider the bills. Predictably, Republicans gaveled in the session but refused to take up the bills, as they had done twice before when Evers called special sessions on gun control and COVID-19. 

Instead, Assembly Speaker Robin Vos created a Task Force on Racial Disparities as a political tool for Republicans, rather than a good-faith effort towards reform. The task force issued a list of nonbinding recommendations for police reform this April. Both the committee and the bills it has proposed carry the stamp of bipartisanship—but few teeth. 

The Legislature has been taking up those bills this spring, along with a slate of seven police reform bills introduced by another bipartisan pair in the State Senate: Republican Van Wanggaard, a former police officer, and Democrat Lena Taylor. Some of these bills, like a partial ban on chokeholds, are watered-down versions of reforms that were already widely panned as part of the 8 Can’t Wait campaign last summer, which was criticized for detracting from abolitionist demands with eight policies that fail to address police brutality, racist policing, and the structural issues rooted within policing itself.

Other bills from Wanggaard and Taylor would increase police funding and power, including a new program for community policing grants and changes to the Police and Fire Commissions that oversee Madison and Milwaukee’s police departments. 

In response to the disappointing lineup of proposals, some Democratic lawmakers introduced bills that are a step closer to community demands for significant policy change, including legislation that would ban qualified immunity for police officers and no-knock warrants. But even these don’t tackle systemic changes to policing.

There is little hope that proposals without bipartisan support will pass the Legislature. Community advocates have called on Evers to veto bills that don’t go far enough. The yearlong back-and-forth is a master class in pushing “reformist reforms” that expand the scope of policing while sidelining abolitionist reforms that would defund and shrink police departments. And while Republicans may be obstructing the passage of meaningful legislation, Democrats have often been willing participants in the race for symbolic victories with little substantive change. 

Evers dodges community demands for changes at the DOC

While the spotlight is on policing reform, some advocates are pointing out that the Governor already has the power to make real change on another major piece of the criminal justice system—incarceration. 

On a sweaty mid-heatwave afternoon on June 10, protestors gathered outside the state Capitol in front of a large black banner with white block letters: NO MORE PRISONS. Individuals and members of Forum for Understanding Prisons (FFUP), Abolish MKE, Black Umbrella Global, and Free the 350 Bail Fund led the protest to “Defund the DOC.” The Wisconsin Department of Corrections (DOC) runs state prisons for adults and youth and probation and parole. 

The afternoon of the protest, a Pride Flag fluttered above the Capitol. Inside, the Legislature’s Joint Finance Committee (JFC) was preparing to consider criminal justice-related initiatives within the state budget. Outside, people passed around a microphone to speak about their experiences with Wisconsin’s prison system and the impact of mass incarceration on their communities and loved ones.

“What goes on inside those prisons is a nightmare. It’s a nightmare. What goes on inside of those prisons, I’ll never get out of my head,” one speaker’s voice quavered. “But what also goes on inside those prisons is living. People are fucking living… We’re in there studying, we’re in there learning, we’re in there trying to figure out, what are solutions other than government and incarceration and policing. Today we’re here in opposition of the budget they’re trying to pass. Evers wants to sit there and tell us that, hey, the Republicans, they’re standing in the way.” 

But Republicans are not the answer, said the speaker. “We do not need to pass a single law through this building to change criminal justice here in Wisconsin. Not a single law.”

That afternoon the group delivered a petition with more than 100 signatures to the Governor’s office, outlining three demands aimed at releasing more people from prison as part of efforts towards decarceration: 

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Wisconsin’s prisons have been a humanitarian catastrophe for years. We do not want to see incarceration rates “bounce back” after COVID-19 stops slowing courts and creating capacity concerns. As Governor, you have the power to bypass legislative stalemate and prevent further tragedy.

We the undersigned demand that you take the following minimal actions.

1. Expand the criteria for your pardon advisory board to include all currently incarcerated people and create a process by which anyone held in WI prisons can apply for a pardon and receive serious consideration.

2. Veto any prison expansion money from the 2021-2022 state budget, including the $119 million you proposed.

3. Address overcrowding by releasing people using your pardon power, and modifying DOC policy in regards to revocation and early release programming.

You have the power to take these actions, regardless of what the legislature says. Use it. Keep your campaign promises and save the people who elected you from further harm.

This petition is still accepting signatures online.

“These are issues that we’ve been advocating on as soon as Evers came into office,” says Ben Turk, a volunteer with the nonprofit Forum for Understanding Prisons (FFUP) and writer with the collaborative Abolish MKE. “The landscape is overall pretty dire,” says Turk. “There are things that the Governor could do worse. But he could also do a good deal more and better.”

Turk pointed to the Governor’s recreation of the Pardon Advisory Board to consider applications for clemency as one example. “[Evers’ executive order 30 in June 2019] reestablished the Pardon Board and everybody patted him on the back for it,” says Turk. But only people who completed their sentence at least five years ago are considered for a pardon, which Turk said is a major limitation that excludes anyone currently incarcerated and many on parole or probation. “Everyone who is in prison who had a good case for release was being completely ignored by the Governor, who was taking all the credit for being more compassionate and forgiving,” Turk says. That became an urgent issue during the pandemic, says Turk, when pardons could have reduced the number of people incarcerated. Nearly 11,000 people in Wisconsin prisons—more than half—have contracted COVID-19, and 32 people died.

But when it comes to pushing for change, Turk says there seems to be a pattern. “When we demand changes to the way the DOC operates, the Governor and [DOC] Secretary Kevin Carr say we would rather make those changes on a legislative level, because then they’ll be permanent changes.” But that passes the buck to the Legislature, says Turk, “knowing full well that this Legislature is gerrymandered and unresponsive to the public, and it’s definitely not going to pass any substantive reform laws.”

The groups’ demands are written to address this. “We need [Evers and Carr] to stop blaming the other side for [their] inaction on these issues that are a dire crisis,” says Turk. “Wisconsin has some of the highest incarceration rates, some of the greatest racial disparities, it’s the worst place for Black kids to grow up. And that’s all about mass incarceration and over-saturation in policing.” 

Turk says that Evers has both the power and responsibility to change that.

Snitch houses 

On June 10, hours after protestors delivered their decarceration demands to the Governor’s Office, the Joint Committee on Finance allocated $1 million in the budget to fund grants for municipal “community-oriented policing-house programs,” or COP Houses. Wanggaard and Taylor introduced the bill to create this grant program. The bill passed in the Legislature on June 17, along with several other reform bills, and Evers has already indicated that he will sign it.

COP Houses were launched in Racine nearly 30 years ago as a community policing strategy. Although community policing is often offered up as a solution to police brutality and systemic racism, it depends on the myth that building trust between cops and the people they criminalize will make people and communities safer. 

Opponents refer to COP Houses as “Snitch Houses,” seeing them as a way to increase surveillance and more deeply entrench police presence in already over-policed communities. Abolish MKE recently published a four-part series on the impacts of Snitch Houses. Though the Racine Police Department claims there is a significant decrease in crime in neighborhoods with Snitch Houses, an article from Jade Yan with Chicago’s South Side Weekly points out that violent crime actually increased in Racine from 2007 to 2017, and the series from Abolish MKE argues that Snitch Houses ultimately reduce public safety and displace neighborhood residents.

The program is also, on the face of it, explicitly contrary to demands to defund the police and instead fund services—like housing—for communities. Abolish MKE charts how the COP House program in Racine sucks in both public and private dollars to house wrap-around services that are tied to cooperation with the criminal legal system.

Racine’s Community Oriented Policing website says that COP houses provide “a positive and structured environment focused on learning. The police department provides the classroom and a computer lab, while the program provides everything from help with homework to arts and crafts. Volunteers provide their time to the program and the kids. Some houses offer specialized programs based on their neighborhoods unique needs.”

In a conversation this May with Wisconsin Public Radio, Racine Police Department Sergeant Joseph Spaulding said that parole and probation officers had also been stationed at the houses and involved in neighborhood activities, including cookouts and helping to teach kids bicycle safety. 

This approach to policing is what the term “Snitch Houses” refers to: “Police gaining community trust and controlling resources means police recruiting confidential informants,” writes Abolish MKE. “That’s why we call them snitch houses. Any resources given to police will be used to turn neighbors against each other, target Black people, and do violence.”

The Racine Police Department has published a “COP House Playbook” and the model is already being exported to at least two neighboring states. A former Racine police officer helped start a similar program in St. Cloud, Minnesota, and there are plans to establish a COP house in Chicago, despite community opposition. Efforts to begin a program in Milwaukee have already faced backlash.

Defunding the police and DOC

During the June 10 protest, Tai, a contributor to Abolish MKE and member of MKE Lit Supply, handed out flyers with the demands and water bottles to the small crowd. During an interview afterwards, Tai said that although policing and prisons are deeply intertwined, public pressure for police reform and abolition over the last year hasn’t always translated into support for similar changes to incarceration.

“Police put people in prison,” says Tai. “They are the frontline to the issue and the problems of mass incarceration, especially here in Wisconsin. Understanding that police are racist and their policies informs our understanding of the DOC’s racism as well.” 

“We feel and have always felt that Black Lives Matter, including those that are currently incarcerated,” says Tai. “Defunding the police would be a big step towards closing and emptying our prisons.”

But the very structure of incarceration can be a barrier to organizing for change. “It’s very difficult to highlight and to even know what goes on behind those prison walls when people are locked up and unable to communicate with people on the outside,” says Tai. “It’s the state’s desire to silence and lock those problems up where people cannot witness and see the atrocities that occur to them as people.” 

In a separate interview, FFUP’s Ben Turk said that some conditions in the DOC have worsened under Evers’ watch. FFUP received information indicating that the Racine Correctional Institution removed all unit libraries on June 14. 

Mail for people imprisoned is currently routed through a private company in Florida, Turk said. The person in prison only receives a photocopy of the mail—a photocopy that is sometimes low quality or missing pages—and the original mail is shredded. 

The DOC contracts with Union Supply Group to run the canteen in Wisconsin prisons. “All of the prison canteen commissary companies are bad,” said Turk, “but Union Supply has particularly bad customer service and responsiveness when people have issues.”

But as Tai noted, it can be hard to mobilize public support to advocate for people who are incarcerated. 

“Even within anti-police-brutality circles, there’s still a stigma attached to incarcerated people. A sort of desire to only fight for the perfect victims,” says Turk. “[There is] a lack of recognition that what the good cops do is also harm people and kidnap people and put them into cages and ruin their lives.”

Turk alluded to the myth that problems with policing stem from a few “bad apples” that should be addressed individually. Even “good” cops enforce the harmful and racist laws and norms that the criminal legal system as a whole is built on

Prisons and policing share the same tensions between reformist reforms that reinforce the current system and those that would divert resources out of the system. While “3 Demands to Decarcerate Wisconsin” focuses on getting people out of prison, Turk says that accomplishing these demands would also free up resources to make investments in education, housing and other community services. Shifting resources into the community is a key part of the framework to defund police and prisons.

Struggles at the local level

The conversations happening at a state level mirror efforts for reform—and the tensions between reformist and abolitionist reforms—in Madison and Dane County. 

On June 15, the Madison Common Council Executive Committee voted to accept a report from the Police Body-Worn Camera Feasibility Review Committee recommending the use of body cameras for the Madison Police Department, and outlining policies for their use. The Council has not yet voted on whether MPD should purchase or use body cameras. Critics point out that purchasing body cameras and reviewing footage increases police budgets, and that they are ineffective tools for changing police behavior and reducing police brutality; they can in fact result in increased surveillance and criminalization

One of the bipartisan police bills moving through the Legislature would create a grant program to help law enforcement agencies purchase body cameras. On June 10, the Joint Committee on Finance voted to allocate $2 million to the program.

Another bipartisan bill would collect data on no-knock warrants. Despite a push—and a bill—from some Democrats and community advocates to ban no-knock warrants outright, the Task Force on Racial Disparities recommended gathering more data before making a decision. MPD still uses no-knock warrants. This spring, the Dane County Board of Supervisors considered asking the County Sheriff’s office not to use no-knock warrants, in a resolution that has yet to be voted on by the full board. 

And the Dane County Board of Supervisors continues to move forward with plans for a new $148 million jail despite community opposition (disclosure: I am part of a coalition working to stop the new county jail). Alders on the Madison Common Council will also have to go on the record soon when considering the jail proposal under municipal zoning codes.

Both Dane County and Wisconsin as a whole are projecting a return to incarcerating greater numbers of people as the pandemic eases. During COVID-19, changes in policies and practices led to far fewer people imprisoned. 

“That’s entirely in control of the Democratic Party,” says Turk. “The Governor has control of the DOC. And the cities that have the highest incarceration rates, Milwaukee and Madison, are in control of Democrats.”

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