Limits On Wisconsin Police Choke Holds Advances Without Much Opposition

A bipartisan proposal limiting police use of choke holds in Wisconsin is advancing through the state Legislature with little opposition. 

Under the bill, law enforcement officers could only use choke holds in life-threatening situations or in self-defense. Choke holds have gotten increased attention across the country over the past year, following the death of George Floyd at the hands of a Minneapolis police officer last spring.

During an Assembly committee hearing on Tuesday, West Allis Police Chief Pat Mitchell told lawmakers that choke holds are not part of Wisconsin officers’ formal training and are rarely used. However, he said it’s important the holds remain available to officers in certain situations. 

“Our objective is to reduce the amount of force that we use, but we still have to get out of that encounter safely,” Mitchell said. “An absolute prohibition of choke holds could lead to a greater use of force than just a choke hold.”

“We can all agree that a choke hold, as we have seen, can have very deadly consequences, but a choke hold is far less deadly than use of a firearm,” he added.

Several groups and organizations, including the City of Milwaukee, Wisconsin Professional Police Association, Wisconsin Chiefs of Police Association and Badger State Sheriffs’ Association, have registered their support for the bill. No groups have registered their opposition. Two individuals registered as opposed during Tuesday’s committee hearing, but did not speak.

Sen. Van Wanggaard, R-Racine, a former police officer, is one of the bill’s sponsors. He told lawmakers the proposal is aimed at increasing law enforcement accountability and transparency and mending strained community relationships.

“The relationship between certain communities and the police did not deteriorate overnight, and it will not be fixed overnight,” Wanggaard said. 

The proposal was approved by a Senate committee earlier this month. It has yet to be voted on in an Assembly committee. 

Gov. Tony Evers proposed a complete ban on choke holds last year in a package of several bills related to policing, which the GOP-controlled Legislature never voted on. The governor hasn’t said if he will sign or veto the pared-back proposal. 

The choke hold bill is one of more than a dozen plans advanced by a bipartisan Assembly task force convened after last summer’s protests and unrest related to police violence. Other bills in the package would create new reporting requirements for use of force incidents, create whistleblower protections for such incidents and fund community violence prevention programs. Some of the bills have already been approved by the state Senate, but none have been voted on in the Assembly.