Wisconsin Governor Calls for Special Session to Pass Police Reforms After Kenosha Officers Shoot Black Man in the Back

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The shooting by police in Wisconsin of a Black man sparked strong words of condemnation from the state's Democratic governor, who called for a special legislative session to consider a package of police reforms.

"More than two months ago now, Lt. Gov. Mandela Barnes and I announced a package of legislation to increase accountability and transparency in policing in Wisconsin," Gov. Tony Evers said in a livestreamed address.

"This package invests in community violence interruption programs and works to address the issue of inappropriate use of force by individuals in law enforcement, prohibits dangerous police practices, builds upon the work of the Law Enforcement Standards Board and strengthens accountability measures," Evers continued, calling them "common sense policies that transcend political debate.

"Yet two months later, Wisconsin's legislative leaders have failed to act. This movement has touched every corner of Wisconsin and frankly I should not need to call a special session but people across our state from streets from my small hometown of Plymouth to the streets of Milwaukee are demanding their elected leaders take action," he added. "Leaders show up. Leaders do the work that needs to be done and that the people demand of them."

"But we cannot wait for Republican leadership to show up for work because clearly they intend to keep us waiting. That's not going to cut it," Evers said. "Not for me, not for Lt. Gov. Barnes and certainly, certainly not the people of the state who are leading at this time and in this moment."

"That's why today I'm calling for a special session of the legislature to take up the package of legislation we announced earlier this year," he continued. "We must begin the long but important path towards ensuring our state and our country starts to live up to our promises of equity and justice."

Earlier in the day, Republicans and the police union had urged caution in making any judgments about what sparked the shooting.

The divergent reactions to the shooting Sunday by Kenosha police is just the latest example of the deep divide in Wisconsin, a key presidential battleground state that has been at the forefront of partisan battles for the past decade ranging from redistricting to union rights. More recently, Republicans ignored Gov. Tony Evers' call to do away with in-person voting for the state's April presidential primary in the early days of the coronavirus pandemic.

Cellphone footage posted on social media Sunday appeared to show police shooting 29-year-old Jacob Blake multiple times in the back as he opened a door and leaned into an SUV. The state Department of Justice said officers were responding to a domestic incident, but it has not released more details. Blake was in serious condition Monday at a Milwaukee hospital.

Protests erupted in Kenosha in the hours after the shooting, sparking concerns of more unrest across the country similar to what was seen after the May death of George Floyd while in the custody of Minneapolis police. Chris Ott, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Wisconsin, said the shooting “looks like attempted murder."

“Exhale,” said Republican state Sen. Van Wanggaard, a retired police officer from Racine, which is next to Kenosha. “Everyone should take a deep breath. ... We must let law and reason, not emotion, guide the next steps.”

But Evers was passionate in his response, saying he stands with everyone who has demanded justice, equity and accountability and against excessive use of force when engaged with Black people.

“While we do not have all of the details yet, what we know for certain is that he is not the first Black man or person to have been shot or injured or mercilessly killed at the hands of individuals in law enforcement in our state or our country,” Evers said.

Wanggaard was among Republicans who condemned Evers for his earlier comments, which were issued just as protesters took to the streets in Kenosha and clashed with police.

“The best leaders attempt to diffuse situations, not escalate them,” Wanggaard said. “Evers’ statement was irresponsible and inflammatory. He jumped to conclusions without first having all the facts. At a time when stereotyping situations is especially risky, Evers stereotyped every police interaction with people of color — harming both.”

Pete Deates, president of the Kenosha police union, called Evers’ statement “wholly irresponsible.”

“As always, the video currently circulating does not capture all the intricacies of a highly dynamic incident,” Deates said in a statement. “We ask that you withhold from passing judgment until all the facts are known and released.”

The Legislature has not taken any action on any of the measures Evers mentioned Monday, which would ban the use of chokeholds by Wisconsin police officers, as well as limit other uses of force.

Republican Assembly Speaker Robin Vos on Monday said he was creating a task force to examine police policies and standards, racial disparities, educational opportunities and public safety. He did not address any of the bills Evers and Democrats have advocated.

“We must find a path forward as a society that brings everyone together,” Vos said, while denouncing violent protests and saying investigators must be able to complete their work “to know if the shocking 20-second video clip shared with the media tells the whole story.”

Wisconsin Republicans echoed a law-and-order theme that President Donald Trump has been using in his reelection campaign, including during stops to Minnesota and Wisconsin last week. While calling for peaceful protests, Wisconsin Republicans also urged patience given the ongoing investigation.

Jim Steineke, Republican majority leader of the Wisconsin Assembly, didn't call out Evers by name but urged elected officials to “resist the temptation to rush to judgment.”

“The frustration and anger that many in our communities are feeling must be met with empathy, but cannot be further fueled by politicians’ statements or actions that can stoke flames of violence,” Steineke said.

Evers, in the second year of his first term, has been stymied by Republicans who control the Legislature and have it as their goal in November to build majorities strong enough to override any gubernatorial veto. The state also is at the forefront of the presidential race, with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi last week emphasizing the recurring message that “it's all riding on Wisconsin.” Trump won Wisconsin by less than a percentage point in 2016.

NBC Chicago/Associated Press
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