Laws protect Kenosha police, not Jacob Blake.

In Minneapolis after George Floyd’s murder by police, I saw Lt. Bob Kroll on TV, red-faced and yelling at the cameras. He was identified on screen as the head of the city’s police union, with 800 members, and he announced that his union would fight to get the four accused police officers’ jobs back (before they had all been indicted).

“Bellicose” was a word describing him in the next day’s news report I read. Bellicose means to demonstrate aggression and a willingness to fight. I didn’t think that was the most appropriate attitude for a profession that says its most important job is “to protect and serve” the public. For me, his red-faced anger is a potent image of systemic racism.

Under Wisconsin law, the Kenosha police seem to have more legal protections to avoid penalties for their misconduct than a Black citizen like Jacob Blake has to avoid harm by police use of excessive force. This disparity in legal protections is another demonstration of systemic racism.

What Wisconsin laws protect the police from the consequences of misconduct?

  • Chapter 164: Law Enforcement Officers’ Bill of Rights
  • Police Union contracts with municipalities.
  • Act 10.
  • Local Police & Fire Commissions.
  • Suspension with pay.
  • Record of an officer’s past misconduct often hidden.

Chapter 164: Law Enforcement Officers’ Bill of Rights

In 1979, Wisconsin was one of 16 states adopting this “bill or rights” to state statutes, after it was first adopted in Maryland in 1974. Eleven other states are considering adopting it, and other states have written its provisions into contracts with police unions.

What does the Officers’ Bill of Rights do?

Expands the due process protections available to police officers (and fire department employees) in any city, village, town, or county. A police officer accused of misconduct:

  • Must be told the nature of an investigation before any interrogation;
  • May have legal representative at all times;
  • Only evidence obtained in interrogation may be used in disciplinary proceedings;
  • No collective bargaining agreement can abridge these rights.

Wisconsin’s law omits some of the more restrictive provisions other states have adopted, like permitting a week or more delay between an incident and an officer’s interrogation.

What is the result of these protections?

They can delay, diminish, or end investigations and/or prosecutions for any officer’s misconduct while on duty. These levels of due process protections are not available to regular and unarmed Black citizens when they encounter armed police over minor or imagined crimes.

Police unions negotiate contracts with municipalities,

These negotiated contracts often have terms that specifically protect union police officers from discipline for misconduct, an important benefit to members in addition to pay and health benefits.

What impact can police unions have on investigations of a police officer’s misconduct?

Before the Kenosha Police Department have issued any detailed or coherent information about Jacob Blake’s shooting, the Kenosha Professional Police Union gave to the press its own statement of the events of the crime, seemingly exonerating the officers involved.

Act 10

After a partisan fight to repair a $3.6 billion state budget deficit, Act 10 became law, limiting collective bargaining rights for many public employees for anything but wages, and restricts most unions from collecting dues.

How does Act 10 impact police unions?

Firefighters and police are exempt from these limitations, which preserves the right of police unions to the leverage of collective bargaining, securing contracts that can shield their members from misconduct charges or penalties.

Local Police & Fire Commissions

Every city, town, village and county in Wisconsin has a Police & Fire Commission, appointed by the mayor or top elected official. These Commissions have final authority on all matters of hiring, firing, and disciplinary action for a police department.

What impact do these Commissions have on police discipline?

Police and Fire Commissions have the final say on all disciplinary actions for misconduct, as well as hiring/firing personnel. They are not elected, and do not have to answer to public input or appeals. They generally do not rule against police officers accused of excessive force or other misconduct.

Suspension with pay.

During an investigation, police accused of misconduct are most often suspended or given administrative duty with pay, until the often lengthy investigation process is completed.

What is the impact of administrative duty with pay?

All other police officers witness a lengthy discipline process without immediate professional or financial penalties for misconduct.

Record of an officer’s past misconduct often concealed.

Many union contracts restrict public access to an officer’s misconduct or record of community complaints or disciplinary actions. Police departments may not verify an applicant’s disciplinary history before hiring.

What is the impact of concealing past misconduct?

More misconduct. In 2014 White police officer Timothy Loehmann shot and killed 12-year-old Tamir Rice for brandishing a toy gun. The Cleveland police department did not release surveillance video until 4 days after the shooting, and took 7 months to complete its investigation. Several months later a grand jury found that Loehmann had acted appropriately. In 2017, Loehmann was fired, not for the killing but for omitting from his original job application that he had been previously fired from another police department in a Cleveland suburb for being emotionally unstable and unfit for duty. No one at the Cleveland department had verified his past experience before he was hired.

To be continued….

What police reforms would actually work to improve police accountability, lessen use of excessive force, and build a positive involvement with communities?

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