After George Floyd, a black man, died at the hands of a white Minneapolis Police Officer on Memorial Day, protests and calls to defund, demilitarize, reform, and even abolish the police have swelled across the country.
Floyd’s death “shocked the conscience of the nation,” Racine Police Chief Art Howell said in a letter to the community earlier this month.
Racine Mayor Cory Mason, a Democrat, jumped into the fray, announcing changes to the police department – including mandatory implicit bias training for police officers, posting all police policies online, and increasing the number of officers of color – and the creation of a civilian task force.
“Across the nation, we are having a long-overdue conversation about race and policing in America,” Mayor Cory Mason said June 10 in a press release. “Racism is structural and institutional, and it is incumbent on us to eliminate it in all its forms. As Mayor, when I say ‘Black Lives Matter,’ I must also acknowledge the outcry we have heard from the community to act locally to reform our police department.”
Soon after he was elected mayor, Mason ordered a review of the city’s police department culture in 2018.
The Badger Project, a nonpartisan journalism nonprofit in Wisconsin, took a look at how local policing compares to national criticism.
The city of Racine and the Racine Police Department did not respond to multiple requests for interviews.
Critics who want to defund or abolish the police note that police budgets are enormous compared to other government services, and accuse politically-powerful police unions of preventing any cuts.
The largest line item on Racine’s $214 million 2020 budget is the police department at about $30 million.
By comparison, the city budgeted about $4.3 million for libraries, about $2.5 million for the health department, and about $2.3 million for community development.
COMPLAINTS AGAINST OFFICERS
Critics say many police union contracts protect bad officers, preventing the release of complaints and blocking chiefs from firing them.
The Badger Project found no language in the Racine Police union contract to prevent the release of complaints against officers to the public.
Wisconsin’s Public Records Law requires agencies to keep documents, usually for at least seven years, said Bill Lueders, president of the Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council.
In some ways, the state is a nose ahead of the pack. Wisconsin is one of a few states to require an outside investigation regarding deaths involving a police officer.
Also, per state law, the final decision to hire and fire police at a city level is made by a five-person commission appointed by the mayor.
Another complaint nationally is that bad cops who get fired can get a job at another department. The Wisconsin Department of Justice has a database it requires police departments to update when an officer is fired or resigns due to an investigation.
Since its inception in 2017, at least 579 officers have been flagged, said Steven Wagner, director of the Training & Standards Bureau at the Wisconsin Department of Justice
But departments are not mandated to use the database to do a background check on an officer before hiring, Wagner said.
And in January, the Wisconsin Department of Justice announced it would begin collecting police force incidents that resulted in deaths, serious injury, or firearm discharges at or towards people.
CIVILIAN TASK FORCE
Mason also announced the creation of the Mayor’s Task Force on Police Reform. The group will review the police department’s use of force policies and decide whether to create a citizen review board to investigate police complaints.
The task force will report its recommendations in 90 days and will consist of a diverse group of eight community members, including Carl Fields, Pastor Ernest Ni’A of Wayman AME Church, County Board Supervisor Fabi Maldonaldo and Democratic state Rep. Greta Neubauer, as well as the mayor.
Henry Smart III, an assistant professor of public administration and policy at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York and a former U.S. Marine, noted that many “civilian boards” tend to consist of people from or near the criminal justice world, like retired judges, police officers, and prosecutors, and often lack other viewpoints from the community.
“We know that diversity – not just in skin, not just in gender, but also in how we think, points of view – yields better outcomes,” he said. (Civilian boards) tend to be less contentious, as long as the folks sitting at the table respect those different opinions.”
The professor also noted that many civilian boards have no authority, and are only allowed to make recommendations when they need to have the ability to make decisions.
“Then all these boards are doing is delaying the inevitable,” Smart said.
In the press release, the mayor noted the city has already taken some steps to improve policing and its relations with the community, including requiring all officers to wear body cameras, opening six community centers called COP Houses – one of which was burned by rioters -, investing in mental health and wellness in the department and utilizing de-escalation crisis training for officers.
“I am completely committed to working with the community on these reform efforts to ensure transparency, accountability, and justice, but the City cannot do this alone,” Mason said in the press release. “I hope all of our surrounding communities will join us in this reform effort.”
This article was written by Peter Cameron from The Badger Project, a nonpartisan, citizen-supported journalism nonprofit in Wisconsin. Cameron is managing editor. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.