BY PETER CAMERON, The Badger Project
With little fanfare and no opposition, a bill proponents hope will cut down on bad apples in law enforcement passed the legislature and was signed by the governor way back in November.
The law requires law enforcement agencies maintain a work history file for each employee and creates a procedure for law enforcement agencies, jails, and juvenile detention facilities to receive and review an officer candidate’s file from previous employers.
Gov. Tony Evers announced the bill signing with several others in a press release issued Nov. 5. Passage has garnered little to no media coverage or public comment from elected officials.
Union protections often make it difficult to fire officers, chiefs across the country complain, so law enforcement agencies will sometimes agree to seal a problem officer’s personnel file in exchange for his or her willing resignation. This law aims to end that practice in Wisconsin.
It “provides a much-needed mechanism to keep bad actors in policing from moving to new agencies after being terminated for unlawful or unethical behavior,” said Meghan Stroshine, an associate professor of criminology and law studies at Marquette University who studies law enforcement.
“Police are afforded many protections due to the unique role they play in society, but there should be no cases where a police department is in the dark about the reason(s) an individual was fired from another law enforcement agency,” Stroshine wrote in an email, “nor should there be the possibility of sealing officers’ personnel files in exchange for their resignation. There should be open access to information about what led to the end of employment at a job candidate’s previous agency.”
She noted that the law does not impose consequences for agencies that fail to comply.
“I see this law as a first step in preventing “wandering officers” from finding employment after termination, not the final step,” she said.
Police union support
The largest police union in the state, the Wisconsin Professional Police Association, supported this measure because it mandates statewide uniformity and transparency in hiring law enforcement officers, said Jim Palmer, the group’s executive director.
“No one wants a bad officer out of the profession more than a good one, and the law now requires all agencies to review the performance records anytime they consider hiring experienced officers,” Palmer wrote in an email. “Mandating this transparency on a statewide basis will make agencies more accountable, and that serves both the interests of the public and the law enforcement community.”
An investigation in 2021 by The Badger Project found that nearly 200 current officers in Wisconsin had been fired or forced out from previous jobs in law enforcement. Many were simply young officers in their first jobs who failed to pass their new hire probationary period, when the bar to fire them is very low. But some rehired officers had lost jobs for more serious conduct, like public drunkenness and sexual harassment.
The new police transparency law came out of the Assembly Speaker’s Task Force on Racial Disparities, formed after a Minneapolis police officer’s murder of George Floyd and the resulting unrest. Assembly Majority Leader Jim Steineke (R-Kaukauna), who is white, and state Rep. Sheila Stubbs (D-Madison), who is black, co-chaired the task force.
Steineke was “not available to comment,” spokesman Mitch Goettl said in an email. A member of the Assembly since 2011, he recently announced he will not seek reelection this year.
Stubbs also did not respond to questions about the bill.
‘Political loser… the right thing to do’
Steineke called leading the committee a “political loser” in an email captured last year in a records request by Up North News, a left-leaning news organization, noting in the email and a subsequent interview that some would be upset no matter what the committee did.
He also stressed in the email the importance of finding areas of bipartisan agreement, while writing that accomplishments would show how the Democratic Gov. Evers “could get things done if his (administration) weren’t so damn political.”
“This isn’t a role I relish, but think it’s the right thing to do right now,” he wrote in the email.
Last summer, the governor signed several bipartisan bills that came out of the racial disparities task force. The bills banned chokeholds by police, required law enforcement agencies make their use of force policies publicly available, created statewide standards for when an officer may use deadly force, mandated officers to intervene when other officers use illegal force, and created whistleblower protections for officers who report misconduct.
State Democrats, a legislative minority since Republicans were able to draw political districts in 2011, cannot pass any legislation without GOP approval.