Dissecting the shortcomings of the state legislature's Racial Disparity Task Force

Posted: 8:45 AM, Jun 02, 2021
Updated: 2021-06-02 23:29:08-04

One year after millions took to the streets in George Floyd’s name, the 18 recommendations for police reform by Wisconsin’s elected officials nearly a year after Floyd was killed fail to meet the moment.

“We’ve been here before,” Reggie Jackson, a local historian and racial disparities expert said. “That was my initial reaction. It’s great that people are woke. That’s wonderful, but are you going to get out of the bed and do something?”

The calls for change came immediately following Floyd’s death and again after Jacob Blake was shot by a police officer in Kenosha. Gov. Tony Evers called for special sessions so lawmakers could draft up bills he would sign into law. Evers made nine recommended bills. The bills discussed a general baseline of police reform including statewide use of force standards, chokehold bans and publishing use of force policies publicly.

Stubbs & Steineke on not getting something done sooner

The Republican-led legislature declined to come together for the special sessions. Instead, after the Blake shooting, Assembly Speaker Robin Vos created a Racial Disparities Task Force to address issues of equity in the state. The task force would include two subcommittees: one focused on Education and Economic Development and the other on Law Enforcement Policies and Standards. The latter produced 18 recommendations in April, roughly eight months after it was established and nearly eleven months after Floyd was killed.

Of the 18 recommendations, eight of Evers’ original nine proposed bills were included. If the Republican-led Legislature met for the governor’s special sessions, the process could have started last June. Instead, the proposed bills are only now starting to go through the committee process, a long way from reaching the governor’s desk to be signed into law.

“The Legislative Session was over at that point,” Rep. Jim Steineke, co-chair of the Racial Disparities Task Force, said. “Bringing people back in at that point would have been more difficult, especially leading into an election.”

However, special sessions have been held in Wisconsin dating back to the Civil War era. From 2011 to 2018, the state legislature, including Rep. Steineke, met nine times for special sessions. The group met for a total of 710 days and passed 47 laws.

Timeline of Special Sessions between 2011 and 2018
Nine Special Sessions were held between 2011 and 2018, including two each in 2011, 2013, 2017 and 2018.

The special sessions touched on topics like opioids, the economy, healthcare and employment but they did not meet on the topic of reforming police.

“The governor in this call for the special session just launched these bills at the legislature,” Steineke said. “Not working with the legislature, not bringing Republicans and Democrats together, not bringing law enforcement and communities of color together.”

Steineke Q&A

After being named a co-chair for the Racial Disparities Task Force, an email from Steineke was uncovered by UpNorthNews, in which he called the position a “political loser.”

He told Speaker Vos in the email he had no higher aspirations for political office so he was willing to sacrifice himself for the position.

His co-chair on the Task Force, Rep. Shelia Stubbs of Madison, was concerned.

“I think that was a middle point in this process,” Stubbs said of the email. “It could have fell apart and ended there.”

Steineke addresses emails

However, she says she went to Steineke’s office immediately to figure out what this was all about.

“Thanks to our leadership, our commitment in that room, me talking with Speaker Vos and assuring us that the work is still important to get done, we were able to get to these 18 recommendations.”

“That email was all about the political analysis of what I saw in the difficulties of the Task Force going forward,” Steineke said. “Once Rep. Stubbs agreed to be the co-chair, a lot of those concerns were alleviated because I knew where she was coming from."

Bipartisan breath of fresh air

The two representatives have shown something not seen frequently in the Wisconsin legislature: bipartisanship. After a year of political pandemic posturing, Representatives Stubbs and Steineke say they came at this with no party pressures.

"I told them, this is how I feel and they respected it," Stubbs said. "I can say, from the beginning, [Steineke] might have had some skepticism a little bit but through this process, I believe change happened. I know that because I can look it up and I can tell that he was impacted."

"Ultimately, what’s important on this is not me or Rep. Stubbs or any individual on the task force," Steineke said. "It’s really about bringing community and law enforcement and everybody together around a common goal, and that’s something I’m really proud of.”

The community and law enforcement brought together in this task force amounted to 19 people, including Representatives Steineke and Stubbs. The two representatives preached about the inclusivity of the group of people coming together.

The other 17 community members included six people from Milwaukee: local activist Rebecca Burrell, Milwaukee Police Association’s Danilo Cardenas, retired Milwaukee Police Officer Pam Holmes, local activist Tory Lowe, faith leader Orlando Owens and NAACP of Milwaukee Vice President Fred Royal. In total, nine members have current or former law enforcement experience and of the eight meetings held by this group, six meetings were in Madison, one was in Green Bay and one in Kenosha.

Not visiting Milwaukee

The group did not meet in the Blackest and most diverse city in the state, Milwaukee. Milwaukee is home to a vast majority of the state’s Black population. Nearly two out of every three Black Wisconsinites (58.5%) live in Milwaukee.

The law enforcement representation on the task force was more reflective of the percentage of Black Wisconsinites in Milwaukee. With 10 out of 17 non-elected positions on the task force, law enforcement accounted for 58.8 percent of the group.

However, some still view these recommendations from the task force as progress, albeit a small step.

Reggie Jackson talks about legacy of African Americans killed by police

“This is a conversation about change, which is rare,” Jackson said. “We rarely have those conversations, particularly, we have those bipartisan conversations about these types of change. To me, that’s progress, but I always say, the proof is in the pudding.”

Steineke agrees.

“You shouldn’t trust the legislature or the governor until the bills get passed and signed into law,” Steineke said. “We’re excited about the prospects moving forward and anticipate to move these forward and onto the governor’s desk.”

There are seven confirmed bills for police reform to come from the Racial Disparities Task Force. Right now, the bills are in committee, with a long way to go until they are on the governor’s desk to be signed into law.

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