Democratic legislators recently challenged a Republican-proposed bill that would allow police officers to conduct strip searches on criminals detained less than 12 hours.
The bill would repeal legislation passed two sessions ago, eliminating guidelines that strip searches were only necessary should the offender have conducted a misdemeanor or felony, be suspected of concealing a weapon or evidence, or face incarceration for at least 12 hours.
The changes would allow police officers to conduct strip searches on detained suspects regardless if they are being charged with a misdemeanor or felony.
The bill has seen support from Republicans and law enforcement groups, as its purpose is to eliminate the possibility of weapons and contraband entering the general jail population, creating a safer environment for law enforcement and detainees, Matt Woebeke, spokesperson for Sen. Sheila Harsdorf, R-River Falls said.
Harsdorf and Sen. Van Wanggaard, R-Racine are co-sponsors of the bill.
But those opposed to the bill are concerned about the privacy and profiling of arrested people, particularly of color.
Woebeke said concerns about the current law stem from the offender needing to be held for more than 12 hours before they can be strip searched.
“Law enforcement agencies don’t know if they would be held for 12 hours, and many of our jails across the state don’t have a place to hold detainees while they determine this,” Woebeke said.
But, Sen. Lena Taylor, D-Milwaukee, said the bill would be useless for Milwaukee and other large counties in the state, including Dane County.
She said many of the jails in these counties, unlike smaller ones, are well-equipped to deal with the amount of detainees waiting for a decision on the duration of their stay.
“I do understand the public safety matter, but there are many communities that don’t have that issue, including Milwaukee and Dane County. Allow those counties to be exempt,” Taylor said. “The city of Milwaukee has budgeted for this problem, and now it’s not a problem. But what do we do to balance the inappropriate and illegal strip searches?”
Fox 6 reported Wanggaard said his previous experience working as a jailer led him to support the bill due to safety concerns that can come with not strip searching everyone.
“There were times I was jailing when we had an individual make it into the jail with a handgun that was in his crotch,” Wanggaard said.
But, Taylor said she is also concerned about those who might be wrongly searched, such as those who do not need to stay for the 12-hour period but are forced to go through the strip-search procedure anyway.
While Taylor said she sees the plausibility of the bill for smaller counties, she said most strip searches yield nothing and the reason for concern is minimal.
“It’s a huge stripping of dignity for someone to be searched in that way,” Taylor said. “Exposing people to that unnecessarily, especially when we know there is a greater chance for this to happen to men of color, should be prevented.”
The bill passed the Senate Judiciary Committee Wednesday and will be available to be taken for a vote in the next Senate session.