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POLICE AND FIRE COMMISSION

Racine to empower Police and Fire Commission to be more independent from and have more oversight over RPD

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Filming officers

Demonstrators use their phones to record law enforcement in front of the Racine Police Department early on the morning of June 1, minutes before tear gas was used to disperse the crowd after some demonstrators began throwing rocks, bricks and fireworks at a line of law enforcement officers. It was one of the most raucous nights in Racine following the May 25 death of George Floyd in Minneapolis police custody.

RACINE — The Racine Police and Fire Commission will be more independent, but have much more responsibility for police oversight, as a result of police reform measures announced this week.

Cory Mason in a mask

Mason

Mayor Cory Mason presented the “City of Racine Police Reform Report” to the City Council on Tuesday.

That report is the result of monthslong analysis and discussions led by the Mayor’s Task Force on Police Reform, which was formed in June as Mason answered a call from former President Barack Obama for mayors nationwide to look into law enforcement reforms on a local level.

Most of the reform the city intended to undertake was put into place during budget discussions, before the report had been completed.

No new oversight board

The report detailed four areas of recommendations that came from public surveys and conversations.

The first recommendation: a citizen oversight board where citizens could take complaints about the police department and have them investigated.

The community survey indicated 59% of respondents — to include 64% of the Black respondents and 55% of white respondents — supported the creation of an independent citizens review board. Of those surveyed, 29% did not support the creation of such a board.

However, Jim Palmer, executive director of the Wisconsin Professional Police Association, which is associated with both of the unions representing officers/supervisors at the Racine Police Department, called the formation of a civilian oversight board “redundant” in light of the fact those duties are already undertaken by the PFC.

Mayor Mason, after analyzing the problem, came to the same conclusion.

The reality is, Mason noted, what the city learned during the process was the PFC was the only body with any legal ability under Wisconsin law to carry out oversight functions of police and fire departments.

“Only the PFC can discipline or fire a police officer,” Mason said. “It really is limited to that body.”

Therefore, there will not be an independent citizen oversight board at this time.

Strengthening PFC

Instead the PFC, made up of five community members who are appointed by the mayor and serve 5-year terms, will undergo significant changes to strengthen its ability to carry out its statutory functions.

It’s important to understand the PFC is not being given additional powers per se. Instead, it will carry out the duties as outlined in Wisconsin statutes, which has not been done in Racine until now.

Wisconsin law gives the PFC four responsibilities: hiring, promotion, discipline and termination.

In Racine, the PFC has traditionally not been responsible for discipline and termination, according to Mason. However, they will undertake that responsibility.

Hiring, firing and investigating complaints are, in essence, human resource functions. Therefore, PFC staff have been moved from the Police Department to the Human Resources department in City Hall in order to foster a PFC that is more independent than when it was located directly in the Police Department.

The PFC may also get its own website so citizens may go directly to the Commission to file complaints.

Ahead of the game

Regarding improving communication with the public, Mason said that will be seen in steps such as publishing police policy on the internet, in plain language, for better public access.

Mason noted the city and RPD have already accomplished what some cities are still only talking about.

The city purchased body cameras and crafted a policy for their use. There is a psychologist hired specifically for the Police Department. There has been training on racial intelligence, and the city for decades has been a leader of Community Oriented Policing.

No planned training

All of this represents a lot of new procedures for the PFC.

Staff will have the assistance of the city’s HR department and the city attorney, of course, but does the Commission itself need more training?

Jeffrey Peterson, City of Racine alderman, headshot

Peterson

Alderman Jeffrey Peterson asked just that question: Will there be training for the Commission moving forward?

The answer: Not in the foreseeable future.

Mason said the PFC is provided training by the Wisconsin League of Municipalities, but it is voluntary. He explained the PFC is comprised of volunteers, and the city could not mandate training to volunteers.

PFC members in some other cities are paid. In Milwaukee, PFC commissioners receive a “nominal salary” of $6,600 per year, according to the City of Milwaukee’s website.

Further recommendations

The additional recommendations Mason presented involved transparency and communication, use of force policies, and trust and confidence in policing.

As an example of the city addressing these issues, the Police Department’s policies are to be published online, with special reference to the use of force policy.

Mason noted the department’s policies used to be kept in large 3-ring binders. Now, those policies will be more accessible to the public.

Mason asserted that Racine does not have issues with excessive use of force more common in other cities. He said that there have been only three fatal encounters between the police and citizens in 20 years, although the 2018 death of Donte Shannon led to large protests in Racine.

History

Mason justified the lengthy process leading to these actions by reminding listeners Tuesday of the events of this summer, which was bookended by the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis police custody and, closer to home, the civil unrest in Kenosha following the shooting of Jacob Blake by a Kenosha police officer.

“We really needed to have this conversation,” Mason said. “I think every community in the country needed to have this conversation.”

“For so many, the state of racism in policing is exhausting,” Mason said. “This (review) has to be conducted if we really want to build on (Dr. Martin Luther) King’s idea of the beloved community … that would allow for some healing.”

Historically, King’s ideal of the beloved community was that change should come through love and nonviolence.(tncms-asset)0b05496b-07a3-5848-b209-e4f9fd285eeb[4](/tncms-asset)

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