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‘It’s jaw-dropping’: Racine County police leaders 'shocked' by Daunte Wright’s death

Wright

Mount Pleasant’s police chief called the killing of Daunte Wright “a catastrophic mistake, a disaster.” A Racine police sergeant said it was “a terrible tragedy.” Nearly identical statements from the chiefs of the Sturtevant and Waterford police departments said they were “shocked” of the death of Daunte Wright during an attempted arrest in Minnesota.

Wright, a 20-year-old black man, was killed Sunday in Brooklyn Center, Minnesota, a city of 30,600 that shares a border with Minneapolis, bringing large protests back to the Twin Cities even as ex-Minneapolis officer Derek Chauvin remains on trial for the May 25, 2020, death of George Floyd.

Potter

The officer who fired the fatal shot, Kim Potter, appeared to have been trying to tase Wright but grabbed the wrong weapon and shot him, according to video and Brooklyn Center’s now-former police chief — both the chief and Potter resigned the day after the shooting. Potter was criminally charged with second-degree manslaughter on Wednesday.

“I’ll tase you! I’ll tase you! Taser! Taser! Taser!” Potter can be heard saying in body camera footage before shooting Wright, who had been pulled over and was reportedly in the process of being arrested on a warrant but appeared to be trying to get back in his car.

In near unanimity, police leaders locally and nationwide have had nearly identical reactions: How could a police officer, particularly one with 26 years of experience like Potter, grab her gun when she meant to grab her Taser?

EXPLAINER: How does an officer use a gun instead of a Taser?

Soens

“We’re all seeing the same video,” Mount Pleasant Police Chief Matthew Soens said. “Law enforcement’s reaction is similar to everyone else’s. You watch the video, it’s jaw dropping.”

Caledonia Police Lt. Gary Larsen said that he and those in his department reacted with “a lot of curiosity” after hearing about and seeing the video of Potter shoot Wright.

Despite the shock and rarity, Wright isn’t the first person killed or injured in the U.S. by an officer who grabbed the wrong weapon.

As Reuters reported this week: “At least 18 officers have made such errors in the past two decades, sometimes with deadly outcomes, according to data collected by John Peters, a former police officer who served as an expert witness in a prominent ‘weapon confusion’ case involving a 2009 fatal shooting in California.”

That 2009 case was for the death of Oscar Grant, a man who, after a struggle, was taken to the ground but reportedly was still fighting back. An officer told others to “get back,” announced he was going to “tase” the man on the ground, but then shot him in the back.

The officer was charged with second-degree murder but ended up being found guilty of involuntary manslaughter.

‘What went wrong?’

When properly trained, officers should have “muscle memory” to distinguish drawing their gun vs. drawing their Taser, Larsen said.

The Mount Pleasant and Caledonia police departments have their officers recertify in Taser training annually; it’s once every two years in the Racine Police Department.

Larsen said he has been left asking: “What was the failure point? What went wrong? Was it improper placement of equipment? Was it improper training? Was it a one-time off thing?”

Soens said he wondered if the Brooklyn Center Police Department had failed to properly train its officers, allowing such a mistake: “I wonder … ‘How did you mistake that?’ But I go back to: How often do they (the Brooklyn Center PD) train?’ ”

Training is supposed to “prevent something like that from ever happening,” Larsen said. Potter, in addition to being president of a police union, was also a training officer. When Wright was shot Sunday, Potter happened to be training another officer.

Melby

In an email, Sgt. Chad Melby of the Racine Police Department said: “We carry yellow Tasers to make them stand out versus a firearm. It is in our policy that the Taser is carried opposite-side from the firearm also with the intent to avoid possible confusion between the taser and firearm.”

The statements from the Sturtevant and Waterford police departments added: “The Taser is purposefully designed to look, feel and function differently than a firearm. It is intentionally designed to help distinguish under stress the difference between an officer drawing a taser or a firearm.”

Representatives from the Burlington Police Department and Racine County Sheriff’s Office declined to comment for this report.

IN PHOTOS AND VIDEO: Protest in Racine showing solidarity with Minnesota after shooting death of Daunte Wright

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BURLINGTON LIBRARY GOING FINE-FREE
Burlington library turns the page on charging fines for books returned late

BURLINGTON — The Burlington Public Library is doing away with a tradition that most patrons probably will not miss: fines.

swilliams / SCOTT WILLIAMS, scott.williams@journaltimes.com 

The Burlington Public Library maintains a collection of about 70,000 books, CDs, movies, games and other materials that are available to borrow.

The city-owned library has joined a growing trend of libraries eliminating financial penalties for anyone who returns books or other borrowed materials past their due date.

Not only that, the library is waiving previous overdue fines, granting amnesty to past customers in the hope that they will return — and bring back whatever they borrowed.

Fines had cost 25 cents a day for each borrowed item, and once a person reached $10 owed to the library they were no longer able to borrow anything else.

Going “fine-free” is intended to make the library more welcoming and to draw more visitors by getting away from the negative notion that customers could end up feeling punished.

Davies

Library Director Joe Davies said some people do not even step inside the library because they know that, under the old practice, missing the return date on a book meant paying a price. “That’s 180 degrees away from where we want to be,” Davies said. “We want people to use the library.”

The library dropped all fines effective April 1.

Pandemic was ‘eye opening’

Michelle Hughes, who visits the library about twice a month, said she was impressed to hear about the new policy of penalty-free forgiveness for returning materials late.

“I think that’s amazing,” she said.

Even though the 25-cents-a-day fine was not terribly steep, Hughes said, it did discourage some people from becoming library users. For some, she said, “Just that little bit of money is a big deal.”

The Wisconsin Library Association says that more and more libraries are going fine-free, as the public repositories of books and movies try to rebound from the COVID-19 pandemic.

Sherry Machones, president of the statewide association, said after the pandemic forced libraries to close, many patrons missed their return dates and faced escalating fines. Library administrators realized that dropping the fines would be a positive way to welcome the public back after the pandemic slowed, Machones said.

“It was just kind of an eye-opening experience,” she said. “A lot of us took a look at our mission.”

She estimated that two-thirds of Wisconsin’s public libraries now are fine-free.

Waterford Public Library went “fine-free” last year, and the Racine Public Library adopted the same practice in 2018.

swilliams / SCOTT WILLIAMS, scott.williams@journaltimes.com 

Michelle Hughes, left, and her sister, Samantha Ness, pick out some books to borrow at the Burlington Public Library, which no longer charges fines for materials returned late.

Seeking equity

The Burlington library, located at 166 E. Jefferson St., draws about 160,000 visitors a year with a collection of 70,000 books, movies, CDs and other materials for people to borrow.

The library dropped fines for overdue children’s materials about three years ago. Adding all other materials to the fine-free policy became a logical next step to make the library more appealing to all customers.

Danielle Larson, vice president of the library board, said the loss of revenue is not significant, and it is far less important than welcoming patrons and freeing up staff to focus on customer service.

Dropping fines also means that the library is equally accessible to low-income patrons for whom small fines hit much harder.

“It makes things equitable,” Larson said. “That is so important, especially in the climate today.”

In photos: Racine Public Library's summer reading bash

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NATURAL GAS
Work underway on natural gas pipeline through Racine County

TOWN OF BURLINGTON — A pipeline to deliver more natural gas to southeastern Wisconsin is cutting a path across Racine County in a project that has temporarily dotted the landscape with green pipeline segments.

We Energies is building the 46-mile pipeline to bring enough natural gas to the region to power the equivalent of 77,000 homes during a typical Wisconsin winter day.

En route from Whitewater to its destination near Kenosha, the pipeline (using 24-inch pipes) is being installed in an east-west configuration that cuts through the Town of Burlington and City of Burlington, and runs just south of Union Grove.

swilliams / SCOTT WILLIAMS, scott.williams@journaltimes.com 

The "Lakeshore Lateral" natural gas pipeline for We Energies will cross about 46 miles, including nine miles in Racine County, where these segments are waiting to be assembled in the Town of Burlington.

Although large segments of green pipeline can be seen sitting above ground along the route, crews eventually will bury the pipeline underground. From there, the operation will be largely unseen by the public.

“Generally people aren’t going to know that anything was installed,” said Matt Fehler, an operations manager for We Energies.

The Milwaukee-based utility company has received approval for the large pipeline project, known as the “Lakeshore Lateral,” from both the state Public Service Commission and the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources.

Work began last year. We Energies expects to have the pipeline completed by the end of 2021.

Journal Times editorial: Pipelines are safest for the environment

Saying it wasn’t “consistent with my administration’s economic and climate imperatives,” President Joe Biden in one of his first actions revoked the construction permit for the Keystone XL pipeline — the long-fought-over project to move oil from Canada’s tar sands to Nebraska and then on to the Gulf Coast.

The plan

The $186 million project is being overseen by contractor Minnesota Ltd., of Big Lake, Minnesota.

Graziano

Burlington Town Administrator Brian Graziano said the green pipeline scattered along highly visible areas near Highway 83 and elsewhere has not gone unnoticed by townsfolk. Graziano, however, said he is confident that the project will not cause any major troubles for the town.

“We have received calls on the project to see what is going on,” he said. “I know that all parties must adhere to strict DNR and state standards in the planning and construction.”

The DNR gave We Energies permission to clear trees, temporarily disturb wetlands, and to cross more than 20 navigable rivers and other waterways.

DNR section chief Benjamin Callan said work is progressing without any issues or problems.

Because of the size of the pipeline route, Callan said, it would be challenging to complete such an undertaking without temporary disturbance of wetlands or other environmentally sensitive lands.

“It would be very difficult, if not impossible,” he said. “It’s a large project that’s got many facets.”

Starting in Whitewater, where We Energies already has a natural gas station, the pipeline will extend through Walworth County north of Lake Geneva, then across Racine County and Kenosha County to reach another station in the Town of Paris, just west of Kenosha.

Submitted photo 

A map provided by We Energies shows the 46-mile route of the "Lakeshore Lateral" natural gas pipeline, from Whitewater on the left to the Town Paris in Kenosha County on the right. 

A similar pipeline already directs natural gas from Whitewater to Waukesha County. An alternate route for the new pipeline was located farther north in Racine County and would have passed through Rochester and Yorkville, but state officials and We Energies agreed on the current route.

Nine miles of the 46-mile route is in Racine County. Out of an estimated 100 private landowners involved, 19 are in Racine County.

Each property owner is compensated for giving We Energies an easement to access their property for the underground gas line.

Most landowners cooperate

David Boilini, a landowner in the Town of Burlington, is permitting the utility company to cut across a 425-acre farm that he owns near Highway 83 and Liberty Drive. Despite the temporary disruption of farming activities and the general inconvenience, Boilini said, he recognizes that the region is growing and that more energy sources are needed to support that growth. He never really considered fighting the easement request.

“This stuff has to happen,” he said. “It’s really a necessary evil.”

We Energies has been planning the project for years to improve the supply of natural gas available to power homes and businesses in southeastern Wisconsin.

Steil says Biden's order stalling construction on Keystone Pipeline cost Wisconsinites their jobs

Even if more clean-energy jobs are coming in the next four years and beyond, “I don’t know if that’s a lot of solace to the men and women who lost their jobs this week that there might be a potential future job,” U.S. Rep. Bryan Steil said during a Friday morning press conference in Racine County. “A future job doesn’t pay the mortgage. It doesn’t pay the rent. It doesn’t cover the grocery bill.”

Public hearings were held last year. Negotiations with landowners started even before that.

Conway

Easement negotiations have been completed with all landowners, except one in Walworth County. We Energies officials are confident that the project will remain on schedule for completion this year.

“We’ve done a lot of outreach,” company spokesman Brendan Conway said. “We know that we cannot be successful with our projects if we’re not working hand in hand with our customers.”

In photos: Fluffy peregrine falcons chicks get tagged, offering a learning experience

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RACINE UNIFIED
Vos hopes $69M in federal funding leads to improved RUSD graduation rates

RACINE — The Racine Unified School District is set to receive approximately $69 million from the federal government over the next four years for pandemic recovery efforts. Wisconsin Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester, asked district officials on Monday how they plan to spend it.

The money will come from the Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Fund, created as part of the initial COVID-19 stimulus package approved by Congress in March 2020, signed by Donald Trump and updated with additional funds through the second stimulus in January.

“The last year has certainly been challenging for everybody,” Vos said during Unified’s Legislative Committee meeting on Monday. “Every parent, every taxpayer, every business owner. I think every American has really gone through tough times but the good news is we are coming on the other side of the pandemic in so many ways.”

Vos pointed out that the state has increased its contribution to Unified’s annual budget from around $18 million to around $31 million in the past 10 years, a 72% increase. The overall school district budget has increased during that time from $260 million to $338 million, a 30% increase.

During that same time period student enrollment in the district decreased; staffing decreased as well but not nearly as rapidly.

Gordon

Shannon Gordon, Unified’s chief operations officer, explained that Racine Unified maintained staff levels as its enrollment declined to provide additional wraparound services, such as additional academic, emotional or behavioral supports. The district has evidence of where those have been effective and where they haven’t, Gordon said.

Gordon said that administrators are in the process of doing a deep dive and “Being really honest with ourselves about what’s working and what’s not.”

She added that the process will lead to some difficult decisions regarding which programs to continue and which ones should be nixed.

“I know you have been working to try to improve the results at Unified with some success,” Vos said.

But then he referenced standardized tests from the 2018-19 school year, in which around 49% of Unified students scored below the basic level of proficiency in both reading and math.

“That’s challenging for folks even though you’ve seen this dramatic increase in the amount of state aid that we’ve given,” Vos said.

He added that the district’s graduation rate has not improved since the 2013-14 school year. The district’s graduation rate was at 78% in 2014 and was the same in 2020. The rate was worse for black students, at 67% in 2014 and 64% in 2020.

Vos said he hoped the district has a specific plan for the influx of federal money that focuses on increasing the graduation rate and improving outcomes for students of color.

Looking to undo learning loss

Gallien

Superintendent Eric Gallien explained that the district is in the process of planning how to use the money to deal with loss of learning that happened over the last year while students were learning remotely. Around half of students returned to in-person learning in March and the rest are still learning remotely from home.

Plans for the money include a heavy focus on literacy for pre-K through third grade with lots of additional support for students. Unified is working on this effort with its own staff, community organizations and other districts, Gallien said.

He added that the district plans to place more emphasis on connecting its middle schools to its high schools.

“We believe we have a successful formula for our high schools. We just have to be diligent about keeping an eye on the most marginalized groups,” Gallien said.

The district team is working on ways to more closely monitor those students, to check in with them more often and to ensure they’re engaged in the Academies of Racine so that they want to stay in school.

The Academies of Racine are small learning communities in RUSD’s high schools through which students choose a specific pathway such as culinary arts, computer science or education. The Academies work closely with the local business community for things like internships.

Gordon said that the district has to focus not only on the kids harmed by pandemic but also on structural improvements to raise student achievement in general.

Facing the upcoming ‘cliff’

The district can’t make specific plans for all of the ESSR funds until it receives more guidance from the federal government on restrictions for how the money can be used.

Duff

Unified’s Chief Financial Officer Marc Duff asked Vos what advice he would give to districts that fund efforts to improve outcomes with federal money, but will face a “cliff” in four years when that funding runs out.

“If it ends, how do we sustain that?” Duff asked.

Vos admitted that the dropping off of funding was a legitimate concern and said one possibility is creating a savings account of sorts and setting money aside in advance to deal with the drop off.

Pages from the past, April 14: Jury finds Varellas guilty of murder

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