A day after the shooting of a Black man by Kenosha police, Gov. Tony Evers called on the Republican-led Legislature to “rise to this movement and this moment” by acting on bills aiming to bolster transparency in the state’s approach to law enforcement.
The special session call, which urges lawmakers to convene Aug. 31, follows an evening in which activists took to the streets in Kenosha and elsewhere to denounce the incident and the Department of Justice launched a probe as the officers involved were placed on administrative leave.
Evers, accompanied by Lt. Gov. Mandela Barnes, said the bills were “common-sense policies” and that the state needs to “put the lives of Black Wisconsinites above politics.”
The pair pulled together a package of nine bills they said would bolster transparency and accountability in policing earlier this summer, the same bills they want lawmakers to act on in the coming week.
“Leaders show up,” Evers said Monday afternoon. “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.
The shooting, captured on a video that appears to show an officer firing multiple shots into the back of a man identified as Jacob Blake, came after Blake tried to break up a verbal fight between two women after 5 p.m., witnesses told the Kenosha News.
Police were called to the scene, and officers reportedly used a Taser on Blake before at least seven gunshots were heard. Video appears to show Blake, with his back turned to two police officers, shot at close range by an officer who grabbed his shirt as he entered a vehicle. A woman can be heard screaming, “Don’t you do it,” in the background as officers followed Blake to the vehicle with guns drawn.
Blake’s three sons were in the car when their father was shot, according to the civil rights attorney representing the family, Benjamin Crump. Crump represents the family of George Floyd, a Black man who died at the hands of Minneapolis police.
Still, Republicans in the lead-up to the Monday afternoon announcement were urging patience in the community’s and state’s response, as they encouraged protesters to remain peaceful. They asked that the public and elected officials await further details on what happened and allow the DOJ-led investigation into the incident to run its course.
Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, who has so far declined to convene the Legislature to address criminal justice issues in the months following George Floyd’s killing in Minneapolis police custody and the protests it sparked, said in a statement he was convening a new task force on racial disparities, educational opportunities, public safety and police policies to “find a path forward as a society that brings everyone together.”
But Barnes slammed the response as “the abdication of responsibility,” adding in a brief call with reporters: “For (Vos) to just decide now is the time for a task force shows he’s once again late to the party.”
Still, Vos in a later statement rejected the call and accused Evers of playing politics.
“We have an opportunity to bring people together to find solutions,” the Rochester Republican said. “Instead, the governor is choosing to turn to politics again by dictating liberal policies that will only deepen the divisions in our state.”
Monday’s announcement came after the Wisconsin Legislative Black Caucus in June urged Evers to call a special session to take up efforts to overhaul the state’s justice system. At the time, Evers resisted the push, though he wrote in a letter to caucus members that he was “ready and willing to use my power” to convene lawmakers “if there is an unwillingness to do this important work, conversations with legislative leaders break down, or there are talks of delays until the next legislative session.”
While the governor has the power to call a special session, lawmakers aren’t required to meet or take up the legislation he wants. In the past, Evers’ special session calls have been ignored or supplemented by additional GOP-backed legislation. For example, lawmakers last November gaveled-in and gaveled-out in under a minute after refusing to take up two gun control measures Democrats wanted.
At the local level, Kenosha community leaders organized a march to the courthouse around mid-day Monday in response to the shooting of Blake. Eric Russell, president of the Tree of Life Justice League, called for a thorough investigation of the incident by the Wisconsin Department of Justice.
Russell said Black and brown communities ask for “a reverence for our humanity.”
“We ask to be treated with a certain amount of dignity and respect,” Russell said. “The police don’t get to be judge, jury and executioner of Black folks.”
Evers’ initial response to the shooting Sunday night, in which he called for empathy and action in response, drew criticism from Kenosha police union head Pete Deates, who said it was “wholly irresponsible and not reflective of the hardworking members of the law enforcement community” as he said the public should “withhold prejudgment about the incident.”
The incident is under investigation by DOJ’s Division of Criminal Investigation with assistance from the Wisconsin State Patrol and the Kenosha County Sheriff’s Office.
Going forward, the division will continue its investigation and turn over a report to the Kenosha County district attorney’s office, which typically happens within 30 days, per DOJ. The DA will then review the report and decide whether to level any charges. If not, the division will make the report available to the public.
The most recent update from DOJ early Monday morning listed Blake as being treated, in serious condition, at Froedtert Hospital in Milwaukee.
On Sunday night, large crowds gathered to protest the shooting. According to the Journal Times, some protesters threw rocks, bricks and at least one Molotov cocktail. Since then, Evers said he’s deploying 125 National Guard members to Kenosha, and an 8 p.m. curfew is in effect Monday.
Earlier this summer, Vos, whose spokeswoman didn’t return an interview request Monday, told reporters two months ago that he supports increased training for officers to ensure “we have more tools at the hands of police.” But he said action on that front might not take place until after the November election or in January or February of next year.
Fellow Assembly Republican Rep. Jim Steineke, the chamber’s majority leader, declined an interview request through his staff about a potential legislative response, but cautioned in a statement against “racing towards judgment” in the shooting.
“I encourage elected officials to resist the temptation to rush to judgment as well,” he added. “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.”
But Assembly Minority Leader Gordon Hintz, asked about the potential for a special session, slammed the inaction of legislative Republicans and noted in a statement that Assembly Democrats “are ready and eager to convene the Legislature to address the needed changes to our criminal justice system and policing practices in Wisconsin.”
Among the bills Evers and Barnes previously proposed are: one to overhaul use-of-force policies; another to allow police agencies to more easily track the records of applicants while implementing uniform statewide training standards for jail, juvenile detention and law enforcement officials; a third homing in on “racially motivated police calls” or “profiling by proxy,” in which police are unnecessarily summoned to respond to an incident; and more.
Abigail Becker contributed to this report.
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