Senate approves bills to overhaul police policies, changes to election laws

NOW: Senate approves bills to overhaul police policies, changes to election laws

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MADISON, Wis. (CBS 58) -- The State Senate approved a proposal to overhaul Milwaukee’s Fire and Police Commission along with several other bills that would make changes to police policies. 

One bill would expand the commission from seven to nine members, two of those would be selected by fire and police unions. It passed largely on partisan lines with all Republicans in favor and all but one Democrat, Sen. Lena Taylor, voted in opposition. 

Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett said the bill is “an attack on the city” because he doesn’t believe unions should have a say in local decision-making. 

Complaints against police officers and firefighters would have to be heard by a three-member panel on the commission and one person with law enforcement or firefighting background would have to be in attendance, under the bill. 

Some Democrats believe that could create an unfair advantage. 

“The citizens did not ask for this, they did not ask for a retired police officer to be put on the police and fire commission board,” said Sen. LaTonya Johnson (D-Milwaukee). “I believe this bill will do more harm than good.”

Democrats also oppose the bill because it would allow people who live outside the city to sit on the commission. 

The bill sponsored by Sen. Van Wanggaard (R-Racine) argues there’s no residency requirement currently in place, therefore one is not necessary.

“Right now, no commissioner anywhere in the state, including Milwaukee and Madison, has a residency or a requirement,” Wanggaard said. 

The senator, who previously worked as a Racine police officer, added after more than a year of controversies regarding the commission, reform is necessary. 

“Milwaukee FPC is an embarrassment, it has cost the city millions of dollars, it needs to be reformed and this bill does that.”

Since George Floyd’s death, there have been widespread calls for police reforms by lawmakers and activists.

Other bills that did pass the Senate with bipartisan support include requiring law enforcement to post their use of force policies online, provide grants to cities to fund more community-oriented police houses and mandate law enforcement agencies to share employee profiles with other departments during a hiring process.

Another would require Wisconsin’s Department of Justice to collect additional data on use of force incidents, including officer-involved shootings, and publish an annual report. 

GOP Approves Changes to Election Laws 

Republican lawmakers in both chambers also approved numerous proposals that would make it more difficult for people to cast a ballot. 

One would prevent election officials from filling in missing information on an absentee ballot, such as a witness signature, and instead require clerks to return the ballot, then post a notification online.

Senate Republicans also successfully approved numerous changes to returning absentee ballots. Only family members, legal guardians or another voter would be able to drop off an absentee ballot under a bill. A provision to the bill also restricts a voter to drop off a maximum of two ballots. 

Advocacy groups for those with disabilities called the proposal “a barrier” because they believe it would make it more difficult for people to vote. 

“This is especially problematic for people with disabilities, because a lot of them don’t drive and it’s very common for them to turn to someone else to help them out,” said Barbara Beckert, director of Disability Rights Wisconsin. 

With the proposal restricting who could return someone’s ballot, those not approved could face a felony, which Becker said could discourage people from helping others. 

“We think that this will be very complicated and people will be afraid to help others with returning a ballot,” Beckert said. 

Senator Duey Stroebel (R-Saukville), who introduced the proposal, dismissed calls it would make it harder for people to vote, arguing people could still mail their ballot if they don’t have access to the polls. 

“They need a person to bring their ballot in, that’s what the law was before, so they still have that option, or they can mail it,” said Strobel.  

Another bill that was approved by Assembly Republicans would restrict absentee ballot collection events like Madison’s Democracy in the Park which was widely criticized by Republicans. 

Ballot drop boxes would still be allowed under the bill, but it would have to be located within close proximity to a clerk's office and it must be staffed by an election official. All absentee ballots would also have to be dropped off two weeks prior to Election Day. 

The Assembly also approved prohibiting election clerks from accepting grants or donations from organizations. The move comes after a nonprofit, Center for Tech and Civic Life, issued more than $6 million to five cities. 

Several other election bills were also introduced by Republicans but have yet to make it out of committee. 

Most of the proposals will likely face a veto by Democratic Gov. Evers who has called bills to restrict voter access  “a nonstarter.”

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