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Legislatively Speaking

There Is A Difference Between Individual and Organizational Behavior

Lena C. Taylor

Many local media outlets had similar headlines this week: “Wisconsin Lawmakers Introduce Police Reform Package,” “Wisconsin Senate passes first police reform bills” and “Wisconsin State Senate Passes Police Reform Laws.” While all the story captions seemed to be saying the same thing, I walked away from the senate floor believing something very different.

The set of legislative bills, that I recently helped co-author, were about more than changing individual police behavior. The four proposals that were voted on were also about changing organizational culture, structure and systems. They represented the reality that, in addition to officer conduct, we need to review law enforcement agency policies and oversight boards. The public is demanding accountability and transparency in our institutions and practices. True reform doesn’t happen in silos and nothing is off the table to achieve that goal.

Wisconsin legislators, like many others around the country, were forced to reckon with that fact. Last summer’s protests, regarding officer involved deaths, have had residual effects. If you listen really closely you can still hear the chants “What do you want? Change. When do you want it? We Want It, Now!”

Yet, there are those that will tell you, that the protestors and activists weren’t talking about changes to the Fire and Police Commission, as outlined in Senate Bill 117. They have tried to place the solution to community policing squarely on the backs of police officers. The problem is bigger than just behavior and de-escalation training. Many of the issues we face are historic in nature. They are systemic and baked in the cake. These problems are rooted in ideology, policies and organizational structure. Leadership and the tone set at the top of our systems either enable a George Floyd murder or doesn’t tolerate it at all.

Leadership requires that we work across the political aisle to get something done. We don’t get perfect bills. Far too often, we only get a portion of what we are fighting to include. It is with this belief that I am pushing to have a Fire and Police Commission that is fully functional. We need all nine board seats to be filled. When terms expire or become vacant, they need to be filled promptly. We need a commission that is properly trained to understand the complexities of the policies that should govern both the fire and police departments. While others bemoan that the police and fire departments would each get one seat on the commission, others understand that we have already had retired officers and firefighters be appointed to and even chair the Fire and Police Commission.

Bottom line, we need police reform and policing reform. There is a difference. Ronald Davis, a 30-year veteran of law enforcement, recently talked about the difference in this way: “Rank-and-file officers do not decide organizational policies and practices. Nor do officers establish hiring standards or have the power to administer discipline. They also do not decide whether an agency embraces crime-reduction strategies that result in racial disparities.” This is organizational behavior and this is what we must also work to change!

We are in a defining moment in our nation’s development. We will either fight to keep the status quo or we will fight to make our systems better. I choose the latter.

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