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Why the Legislature is unlikely to create a task force on missing and murdered Black women & girls

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Why the Legislature is unlikely to create a task force on missing and murdered Black women & girls

Feb 28, 2024 | 6:45 am ET
By Baylor Spears
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Why the Legislature is unlikely to create a task force on missing and murdered Black women & girls
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“How can anybody question if we should be working on something meaningful to reduce these disparities? It's appalling. It's upsetting to me," Rep. Shelia Stubbs (D-Madison) said on the floor of the Assembly last week. (Screenshot via WisEye)

Rep. Shelia Stubbs (D-Madison) became tearful on the Assembly floor last week while speaking about a bipartisan bill that would create a task force on missing and murdered Black women and girls.

Stubbs, who is the lead Assembly author on the bill, pointed to an investigation by the Guardian that found five Black women and girls were killed each day in the U.S. in 2020; the worst state was Wisconsin, where the rate doubled that year. 

“This state that I choose to live in, to work in, to grow my family in has the highest rate,” Stubbs said on the Assembly floor. “How can anybody question if we should be working on something meaningful to reduce these disparities? It’s appalling. It’s upsetting to me.”

Another recent report, which analyzed homicide rates of women 25 to 44 years old in 30 different states between 1999 to 2020, found that Black women in the U.S. are six times more likely to be murdered compared to white women. It also found that Wisconsin was the state with the greatest disparities.

The bill seeks to address the issue by creating a task force that would be responsible for examining factors that contribute to violence against Black women and girls. It would be required to submit a report on actions that could be taken to eliminate violence against Black women and girls to the Legislature by Dec. 15, 2024. 

The task force, which would be established by the attorney general, would be made up of 17 members including state legislators, representatives from certain law enforcement organizations, from certain legal organizations and from groups that provide services to Black women and girls. 

Stubbs told the Wisconsin Examiner in an interview that the issue is personal to her. 

“Those missing Black women look like me. Those little missing Black girls look like my daughter,” Stubbs said.

Stubbs first introduced the idea last legislative session after learning the statistics about missing and murdered Black women and girls. She was inspired by the DOJ’s task force on Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women, which was established in 2020 by Attorney General Josh Kaul after the Legislature failed to pass a bill to create one. At the time, Kaul said the issue was too important to wait to take action. 

When Stubbs first proposed her bill, without Republican support, it didn’t advance. This legislative session Republicans, including Rep. Michael Schraa (R-Oshkosh) and Sen. Jesse James (R-Altoona), joined the bill, allowing it to move forward. 

“It was such an emotional moment because there’s so much going through my mind — victims and families that I’ve talked to…  growing up as a child and having those memories come back and [having] one opportunity of a small window of less than 10 minutes to kind of sum it,” Stubbs told the Wisconsin Examiner in an interview. 

Stubbs said that it has been hard work trying to address the disparity and bring awareness to the issue. As she worked on the bill, Stubbs has heard from many stakeholders including law enforcement, community groups and one Racine mother whose daughter vanished last year. That mother  testified during the hearing on the bill that she felt like law enforcement initially treated her daughter’s disappearance as a joke.

Stubbs has also dealt with pushback on the legislation. She said that she has received hateful emails during her work on the bill from someone who called her racial slurs, and that she had to get a restraining order against the individual as a result. 

“There’s some people who don’t want advancement. There’s some people that are racist. There’s some people who have their biases, whether it’s implicit, or explicit,” Stubbs told the Examiner. 

According to the Wisconsin Ethics Commission Lobbying website, the City of Milwaukee, Dane County, the Wisconsin Coalition Against Sexual Assault, End Domestic Abuse Wisconsin: the Wisconsin Coalition Against Domestic Violence and the Wisconsin Catholic Conference are all registered in support of the bill. 

The bill passed the Assembly last week in a bipartisan voice vote. Yet, it appears unlikely to advance further in the Senate this session due to opposition from one lawmaker, something that Schraa acknowledged during the debate. 

“It just breaks my heart and I’m so ashamed of the way that this building operates sometimes and conducts its business…” Schraa said during the Assembly floor session. “There’s so much hypocrisy and ego, stubbornness, and mean spiritedness and revenge that takes place in this building.” 

Schraa added that constituents want lawmakers to work together to get stuff done, but that “what happens many times in this chamber is that one person or one senator or one lobbyist can kill or gut a bill that we worked our tails off on… This should be a wakeup call to all of us.” 

The bill has been referred to the Senate Government Operations committee, which is chaired Sen. Duey Stroebel (R-Saukville). Noting that he has spoken with the authors of the bill, Stroebel told the Wisconsin Examiner in an emailed statement that he doesn’t plan to schedule the bill for a public hearing.

“First and foremost, the creation of a task force within the state Department of Justice is not contingent on the enactment of legislation — Attorney General Josh Kaul has the power to do this already, as he has in the past,” Stroebel said. 

Stroebel added that he believes the premise that led to the bill’s introduction “omits critical context regarding crime victimization.” He pointed to data from the U.S. Department of Justice’s National Missing and Identified Persons System, which shows that there are currently 204 missing persons in Wisconsin about 55% of whom are male, and from the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s Crime Data Explorer, which reports that males made up about 75% of victims in the five most recent years of Wisconsin’s homicide data (2018-2022). 

Stroebel also pointed to statistics that as Wisconsin has experienced an increase in violent crime, there has also been a decrease in rates of arrest for violent criminals, incarcerated offenders and a decline in the number of police officers. He said he thought that the “abandonment of proven deterrents to crime has predictably emboldened habitual offenders,” leading to the increase in crime victimization across demographic groups. 

“I believe that every person who is missing or murdered deserves equal justice under the law. I have a difficult time legislating in a way that allows government to prioritize justice based on a victim’s race or gender,” Stroebel said. “However well-intentioned the authors of SB 568/AB 615 may be in their efforts, I simply do not support advancing legislation to create a state government task force focused on only one facet of a much broader societal problem.”

When asked about Stroebel’s comments, Stubbs said that it is “shameful” that he had made it clear that he didn’t intend to give the bill a hearing and said his reasoning, which had not been expressed to her, was just one more reason a task force is needed. 

“Let the experts go to work, to begin to look at the data, to begin to look at what’s happening. Something is happening,” Stubbs said.

Some of Wisconsin’s neighboring states, including Minnesota, have already established similar task forces on the issue. 

Minnesota Senate Assistant Majority Leader Mary Kunesh, a member of the Minnesota Democratic–Farmer–Labor Party, said in written testimony about the Wisconsin bill that Black women are nearly three times more likely to be murdered than white women in Minnesota, and that is a fact that “had not been illustrated until the completion of the Minnesota’s own [Missing and Murdered Black Women task force] was completed.”

“I hope that Wisconsin joins us in this endeavor and would be proud to collaborate in the best way possible to make it happen,” Kunesh said. 

Stubbs said that during a conversation she had with Stroebel he didn’t point to a specific reason why he wasn’t advancing the bill other than “he did not like the bill because he felt that if he allowed this bill to go through then he needs to do it for the Asian population, and he needs to do it for the Latino population and for the Indigenous [population].” She said this was frustrating.

“I want to be clear that Black women and Black girls experience violent crime victimization at higher rates than white women, despite making up less of the population of the state of Wisconsin, in the United States, and … I believe that my effort should be taken seriously, and I want to make sure that this legislation gives us greater accountability, transparency and closure for African American female victims of violence,” Stubbs said.

Stubbs said that she has not given up on advancing the bill in the Senate, though she also questioned why it was sent to Stroebel’s committee in the first place. 

“[The Senate Government Operations committee] is a gumbo committee and they send a bill there to die,” Stubbs said. “Why wasn’t this bill sent to Sen. Van Wanggaard’s committee dealing with criminal justice? Why wasn’t this bill sent to human services?” 

Stubbs said she has requested to have the bill removed from the committee and sent to another committee where it might have a chance of at least receiving a public hearing. 

Stubbs acknowledged that she couldn’t tell AG Kaul what to do, but said she would applaud him if he decided to go ahead and create the task force without the direction of the Legislature.