Why Wisconsin (and your state) doesn't need a Blue Lives Matter bill

The numbers make clear that there’s no war on police in Wisconsin.
 

Wisconsin State Rep. David Steffen, R-Howard, has quite the January ahead of him. He’s planning to introduce a Blue Lives Matter bill in the Wisconsin Assembly—in the spirit of Louisiana’s gesture in May 2015—to add hate crime protections for law enforcement agents who are targeted on the basis of their profession, presumed or otherwise. Rep. Steffen has six offseason months to work the room and finish the bill; his July 11 presser, flanked by Brown County Sheriff John Gossage and several officers, revealed a heavy optimism, with expectations of bipartisan support from the Wisconsin legislature in the wake of last week's ambush on police in Dallas.

The Blue Lives Matter Bill would make Wisconsin the second state to make law enforcement officials, of body and property, a protected class of citizens under hate crime definitions, leaving the option of harsher punishments and fines at the discretion of prosecutors and judges across Wisconsin on a case-by-case basis. Rep. Steffen has the utmost confidence in those entities to implement the additional protections in an appropriate manner, while stressing the importance of possessing “discipline, as well as opportunity, to apply this new element of protection for our law enforcement.”

Gossage, at the press conference strongly echoed these sentiments: “For those individuals who choose to target the guardians that protect our very sanity and sanctity of our community, the consequences of such act [should be] severe.”

That day in Brown County had talks of decisions over diner food, a few women with blue ribbons to support their officers, a Home Depot giveaway of blue light bulbs for Brown County residents, and the omnipresent narrative of a persistent, increasing danger in the climate of law enforcement. The legislator and the officers cited a desperate need for support, appreciation, and protection; they called on their communities to have discussions around these tensions as one, to truly have unity. Though 37 other states have additional punishments for assaults on officers, Rep. Steffen wants this Blue Lives Matter bill to ensure that what happened in Dallas, what’s happening in Baton Rouge, won’t happen to the people who risk their lives daily to protect and serve their communities. The time is now to protect our own, and that’s something everyone should be behind.

A quick dig into the Officer Down Memorial Page database tells a tale that Rep. Steffen would neither confess nor expect you to inquire into: Policing in Wisconsin is extremely safe. Though the uptick in tension is as palpable as it’s obvious, the lives of our Wisconsin officers are safe to the point where the mere suggestion of hate crime protections are laughably egregious, no matter what’s said over breakfast after a tragedy.

How many Wisconsin active-duty officers have died in any context since 1966? ODMP says: 120, or an average of two officer deaths a year for sixty years. If we go back to 1916—a century —the number spikes to 247 overall WI officer deaths in any context. With the Dallas attack—and our nation’s gun violence conversation—in the backdrop, 99 of those 247 overall deaths resulted from non-accidental gunfire, meaning a Wisconsin officer was killed by a gun in the line of duty. That means 99 officers lost their lives to non-accidental gunfire on the job over the course of 100 years, making the final annual toll .99: one death short of losing an officer per year in Wisconsin for the past century.

Meanwhile, Wisconsin police officers have killed between 42 and 51 civilians, in any context, since 2011 alone. According to Mapping Police Violence, the 42 deaths occurred between January 2013 and April 2016. Ten victims were Black, meaning 27 percent of victims in this time period are Black.

This information comes with a caveat: though several archives of police violence against citizens harbor incomplete data—or data through an extremely-limited period of time—the ODMP catalogues nationwide deaths of active duty officers as far back as 1791, with a jarring level of ease and specificity. An inquiry into several other database sites dedicated to mapping police violence and abuse against citizens leaves the current Wisconsin data shaky, since nationwide mandatory reporting doesn’t exist for our police departments, and there’s no national database to house this information. It speaks volumes that I found out how Crawford County Sheriff Robert Lester was shot down by a Native on Thursday, March 21, 1844, but I can’t manage to triangulate how many people Wisconsin officers have killed during just the past few decades.

It may be a question of human error, or simply the system protecting itself.

Law enforcement officials are human beings, elevated to superhuman status by the state. Blue Lives Matter is a tool of distraction from and deflection of the oppressive nature of systemic violence against marginalized groups in these United States. The Dallas shooting is being reduced to a prime opportunity for Rep. Steffen, and likely for representatives in your home state, to mobilize agendas they already had on the books. Fear of unrest aside, there’s a clear reason why Dallas doesn’t happen more often: On top of the sheer militarization and extrajudicial (ergo, superhuman) power the police possess to mold how they see fit, citizens who attack police get punished for those actions. There’s no war on police in Wisconsin: In a state with an estimated 5.7 million residents, only five officers have lost their lives to non-accidental gunfire in the last decade.

It’s clear that Blue Lives Matter quite a bit already in Wisconsin, so what does Rep. Steffen stand to gain from deploying the extra ammunition to protect a state full of officers who average a single gun death a year for a century? The insidious intent behind bills like these can only be left to speculation, but it’s time to question whether or not Wisconsin’s system can be trusted to not utilize these additional powers in a non-abusive fashion. A refresher: According to 2010 Census data, Wisconsin already locks up one in every eight working-age Black men, who only make up 6.5% of the state population. That’s 12.8%, almost double the national average (6.7%).

On Monday in Brown County, a member of the press asked Sheriff Gossage if he recalled any cases in particular that would merit additional persecution under the proposed Blue Lives Matter bill. He couldn’t think of any, but assumed something surely fit the criteria in his tenure as sheriff. Does Wisconsin have the room to pass this bill in January when Tony Robinson, Jay Anderson, and Dontre Hamilton lost their lives on a servant’s assumption? This cancerous rhetoric is coming from the same individuals who call for peace and community solutions, while the very moniker they don continues to salt the exit wounds of the people they service. Blue Lives Matter assumes humanity in law enforcement officials—and yes, it's correct to assume that humanity—so why is it difficult to acknowledge Black Lives Matter when their concerns echo what you present?

The police are not a marginalized population, no matter how they spin their narratives of danger. They enter into unpredictable situations on a daily basis, but they’re among the farthest from an endangered class. The enactment of a Blue Lives Matter bill embodies oppression as an optional and optimal experience: an effort for law enforcement officials to further nestle themselves in power while continuing to arm themselves further to the teeth.

In Wisconsin, we have a Law Enforcement Memorial on the grounds of our Capitol in Madison. It lists several officers who’ve died in the line of duty. I never wish death upon an officer, the same way I never wish death upon myself or any citizen from the hand or weaponry of a paid public servant. The dissonance of this tension creates opportunity for tone-deaf initiatives that stalemate, if not derail, the dialogue around policing and violence in our country. Elevating law enforcement officials to hate-crime-victim status equates an occupation, a job responsible for several hundred years of sustained oppression, to several legacies and centuries of groups that have suffered from that very oppression.

That cannot be a reality in our home, or anywhere else.

By the numbers:

  • Wisconsin population: 5,771,337 (Census estimate, July 2015)
  • 1 in every 8 working-age Black men are incarcerated (12.8%)
    • National average: 6.7%
  • 247 active duty deaths (any context) of law-enforcement officers in Wisconsin since 1916 (Per Officer Down Memorial Page database)
    • 99 WI officers dead of non-accidental gunfire since 1916
    • 99% per year for a century / 2 of every 5 active duty deaths for a century
    • 5 active duty officers in Wisconsin lost their lives to non-accidental gunfire in the past decade
  • Wisconsin officers have killed between 42 and 51 civilians (any context) since 2011 (mappingpoliceviolence.org, fatalencounters.org)
    • Of 42 between 1/2013 and 4/2016, 10 were Black (27.8%)