MADISON, Wis. — Wisconsin lawmakers considered legislation Thursday to crack down on rioting after protests turned violent following a police shooting last year in Milwaukee, but critics said the proposal could result in the arrests of peaceful protesters.
Bill sponsors cited burned buildings and attacks on police during last year’s unrest, and said Wisconsin law doesn’t legally define “riot” or provide a penalty for participating in one. The legislation would change that by creating new legal penalties for protesters who turn violent or block streets, buildings or homes.
But opponents noted the legislation defines a riot as a public disturbance — during a gathering of as few as three people — that includes violence or a threat of immediate violence. The vague language, they said, could result in peaceful protesters being arrested alongside a handful of violent ones.
“So someone else’s intent becomes my burden for a felony?” Democrat Rep. Chris Taylor asked Thursday during the first public hearing on the plans. “I can’t believe this is constitutional.”
“That is what this bill is all about: suppressing speech, and suppressing assembly, as part of a police measure,” said Matt Rothschild, executive director of government watchdog group Wisconsin Democracy Campaign.
Republican Rep. John Spiros, a former police officer, and Republican Sen. Van Wanggaard began working on the measures after the August 2016 Milwaukee protests, which were sparked by the fatal shooting of Syville Smith. Investigators said Smith, who was black, threw or dropped a gun after he was shot during a foot chase, but that he was shot again by an officer standing over him. The officer, who is black, was cleared.
The debate comes amid demonstrations in the St. Louis area to protest a judge’s decision to acquit a white former St. Louis police officer in the death of black man in 2011. Those protests have been largely nonviolent and part of a string of rallies and marches nationwide in recent years decrying police brutality against minorities.
The Wisconsin legislation’s definition of a riot is also found in federal law. Under the plan, participants in such gatherings, including anyone armed, could be charged with a felony punishable by three-and-a-half years in prison. The legislation also would create a misdemeanor, punishable by up to nine months in jail, for anyone who blocks a thoroughfare during a riot.
“Over the last several years we have seen an increase in the number of high-profile riots across the country that have terrorized our big cities, often leaving in their wake huge amounts of damage to businesses, personal property, and law enforcement property, not to mention the personal injuries that have been inflicted,” Spiros said.
Several police associations support the bills, including the Milwaukee Police Association. Association President Mike Crivello told the Wisconsin Assembly’s judiciary committee the bills would help police legally identify a riot and enable them to clear the streets so reinforcements and ambulances can reach the riot.
Committee Republicans recounted how demonstrators threatened and spat on them during protests at the state Capitol in 2011 over Gov. Scott Walker’s signature law stripping public workers’ union rights. Democrats countered by telling Crivello that police already have the authority to disperse crowds and clear streets.
Republican Rep. Jeremy Thiesfeldt said he agreed the legislation seemed too broad. Spiros said he would consider rethinking the wording, but he didn’t elaborate.
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