Bill Punishes Milwaukee, Madison
GOP bill backed by Lena Taylor gives police power in FPC disciplinary actions of cops.
The bill is being sold as an effort to reform the state’s oversight of police. Except that it singles out only Milwaukee and Madison. Cities across Wisconsin have police and fire commissions, but only those in the state’s two most Democratic cities would be changed.
The Senate bill, which passed 22-11, got only one Democratic vote, from its co-sponsor, State Sen. Lena Taylor. Nor do any Assembly Democrats from Milwaukee support the bill. Taylor, who lost the election for Milwaukee mayor in 2020, gave a speech blasting Mayor Tom Barrett for all the problems of the Milwaukee Fire and Police Commission (FPC).
And it would require that any disciplinary committee hearing, which involves three members, would have to include one of the two union nominees on the committee. There are no exceptions for conflicts of interest. Should that particular FPC member be a relative, former partner or former fellow trainee of the officer being disciplined, that doesn’t matter: he or she can still help decide how the officer is — or isn’t — disciplined.
Nor need the nominees be city residents. They could be living in Mequon, Delafield or Lac La Belle, some 40 miles from the heart of the city, and still have the power to help make decisions affecting city policies and taxation.
“I’m trying to increase the credibility of the police department in the city,” Barrett told Urban Milwaukee, “and you don’t do that by taking actions that make it look like it’s an occupying force.”
The Legislature’s 2014 law ending residency requirements for police has led to a wholesale desertion of the city by officers moving to the suburbs. Now the Legislature would like a non-resident to help make policy decisions overseeing the police department.
“This is state interference in local affairs and it’s clearly driven by the Milwaukee police association,” the mayor charges.
Democrats see the bill as a punitive action against Democratic cities and a reward to police and fire unions, which tend to back Republicans. The bill is the latest in a long history of the Milwaukee police union going to the Legislature to gain more power and less oversight by the city. As the police budget has grown ever larger (it’s by by far the biggest expense for the city budget), and suits for police misconduct have mounted (costing taxpayers more than $40 million in the last decade) the city has seen its power steadily eroded.
This legislation was written by Republican state Sen. Van Wanggaard, a former Racine Police officer. “The idea is to have somebody that has a background in that field, whether it be police or fire, that can bring to the table [that] understanding,” he has said.
But if it’s such a good idea, why is being required only for the cities of Milwaukee and Madison?
Democratic state Sen. LaTonya Johnson of Milwaukee, says “the police union already has an unfair amount of power over disciplinary actions of police.” She notes that the union represents an officer facing such an action and “they have no business being on both sides of a disciplinary action.”
Taylor, at a Milwaukee Press Club discussion, pointed to problems with the FPC: “One, they can’t even pick a chief. Two, they’ve had to constantly have an executive director who’s answered, it seems, to the mayor versus to the things that the commission believes should be done. And I believe it did not have the community and the Common Council engaged enough.”
“Thousands of people did not march for hundreds of days to have a person on the Fire and Police Commission who represents the police union,” Johnson says. “It’s going to lead the community to not trust the Fire and Police Commission.”
Johnson says Taylor is pushing the bill to get revenge against the mayor: “I believe that her disdain for Barrett because she lost that election has totally clouded her judgment. She wants to get back at the mayor and is willing to sacrifice the community to do that.”
“I think everyone in the Democratic caucus thinks Lena did a disservice with this bill,” says an Assembly member. “It seems like it’s her top priority bill.”
Johnson thinks its so important to Taylor she will vote to override an expected veto by Gov. Tony Evers, which would give the Republicans in the Senate the extra vote for an override. That would leave everything up to Assembly Democrats: whether to unite against the bill and, should it pass, sustain the governor’s veto.