Hoping to rally support for a bill that would require outside review of police custody deaths, the Wisconsin Professional Police Association on Tuesday released results of a poll that indicates most residents support it.
The bill, which has passed the full Assembly and the Senate Committee on Transportation, Public Safety, and Veterans and Military Affairs, has yet to be scheduled for a vote before the full Senate. With the legislative session waning, its only remaining chances to reach the Senate floor would be March 18 or the first week of April. If Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald (R-Juneau) does not schedule a vote, the bill will die.
Speaking in a hallway just feet from a hectic floor session, Fitzgerald said Tuesday he wasn’t sure whether his chamber would take up the measure. In just weeks, the Senate will finish up its deliberations on hundreds of bills. Fitzgerald said that, so far, the custody death proposal had escaped his attention.
“Literally, I’m not kidding,” Fitzgerald said. “It’s not on my radar screen.”
Of 400 random Wisconsinites questioned during the poll, which was commissioned by the police association last month and completed by St. Norbert College, 83% said they would have “more confidence” in an investigation conducted by an outside agency when deadly force is used. Eighty-one percent said they would support a law requiring outside investigation, association Executive Director Jim Palmer said in a news release.
“Law enforcement officers recognize that maintaining the public’s trust is key to keeping our communities safe,” Palmer said in a statement. “This is a common sense measure that will serve to reassure the public that these unfortunate situations, when they occur, are appropriately and independently reviewed.”
The association, which represents more than 10,000 officers, is among several law enforcement agencies that support the bill.
The proposed legislation would require a team of at least two investigators from an outside agency to lead investigations into such deaths. It also would require reports of custody death investigations throughout the state to be released to the public if criminal charges are not filed against the officers involved.
The bill was prompted by the deaths of Paul Heenan, fatally shot by a Madison police officer outside his home last year; Derek Williams, who died after begging for help and gasping for breath in the back of a Milwaukee police squad car in 2011; and Michael Bell, shot in the head at close range by Kenosha police in his family’s driveway in 2004.
All three men were unarmed.
A Milwaukee Journal Sentinel investigation of in-custody deaths in Milwaukee County over a five-year period found that while those reviews are labeled as “independent,” pathologists, prosecutors and law enforcement officials rely on one another’s conclusions — even when those conclusions are flawed — ensuring no one is held accountable when prisoners die.
Jason Stein of the Journal Sentinel staff contributed to this report.