Wis. panel OKs scaled-down police death probe bill

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MADISON, Wis. (AP) - All Wisconsin police departments except Milwaukee would be required to have outside agencies investigate officer-involved deaths under a dramatically stripped-down bill a legislative committee approved Thursday.

Under the measure, only Milwaukee could continue to investigate its own officers. The Assembly criminal justice committee approved the measure on an 8-2 vote, clearing the way for a vote in the full Assembly.

“Obviously, it’s not perfect,” Rep. Chris Taylor, D-Madison, who doesn’t sit on the committee but has signed onto the bill as a co-sponsor, told reporters after the vote. “(But) it is a bill that takes a step forward on independent investigations.”

Rep. Garey Bies, a Sister Bay Republican and a former sheriff’s deputy, introduced a far more extensive bill in October designed to create more confidence that death investigations are handled properly and officers aren’t investigating their friends.

That proposal would have required departments to involve at least two outside investigators in death probes; created a new state Justice Department board to review the investigation’s findings and make charging recommendations; and required officers involved in an incident to submit a blood sample. A number of Democrats, including Taylor, signed on as co-sponsors.

But the measure generated pushback from the law enforcement community.

Larger Wisconsin departments such as Madison and Milwaukee investigate their own officers, but many smaller agencies already use outside investigators and balked at more bureaucracy. They argued multiple checks and balances already exist to ensure fairness, including criminal reviews, internal discipline and civil lawsuits.

Jim Palmer, executive director of the Wisconsin Professional Police Association, the state’s largest police union, said the bill would set up high-profile conflicts between district attorneys and the review board over charging decisions. Attorney General J.B. Van Hollen called the proposal “a solution in search of a problem.”

Bies went back to the drawing board. The bill he submitted to the criminal justice committee makes no mention of the review board or blood samples. It specifies all agencies except Milwaukee use investigators from a county where the incident didn’t take place and submit a report to prosecutors within a month.

Committee members Jim Ott, R-Mequon, and Fred Kessler, D-Milwaukee, both voted against the bill, saying Milwaukee police shouldn’t be exempted.

“I think the outside presence is absolutely essential for the confidence of the community,” said Kessler, who was a co-sponsor of the original bill.

Bies countered the Milwaukee County district attorney and the city’s police and fire commission review the police’s findings in death investigations and it’s difficult to believe all those entities would collude to cover up misconduct.

A message The Associated Press left at the Milwaukee Police Union wasn’t immediately returned.

Palmer said the bill looks better but his union is still worried the requirement to look to outside counties for investigators could slow down probes. He said police chiefs share the same concern.

Sheboygan Falls Police Chief Steve Riffel, president of the Wisconsin Chiefs of Police Association, didn’t immediately return an email message.

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