As I approach the end of my first term as your state Senator, I am reflecting on all of the goals I have set, bills I have worked on with citizens from the 17th District and successful initiatives to which I have contributed. It is interesting to look back at initiatives from earlier sessions and follow up on whether they have achieved their intended impact.
In 2016, the state legislature passed Assembly Bill 341/Senate Bill (SB) 256 to become Act 311. This law makes any threat to cause death, bodily injury or property damage by any means to prevent the occupation of a building, vehicle, or other public place of assembly, into a Class I felony. It was nicknamed the Terrorist Threat Bill.
I recently spent the afternoon with the Reedsburg Police Department for a “Hire Howard Experience.” Part of our conversation was an update on the application and effectiveness of Act 311 since it was signed into law in 2016. In light of recent national events, I appreciated the update and follow up on this legislation. It is important to reflect and measure our results to continue working on legislation that achieves our intent.
In 2015, Rep. Ed Brooks, R-Reedsburg, and I were contacted by Reedsburg Police chief Tim Becker about this idea. The bill was drafted in response to an incident that happened at a Reedsburg elementary school that disrupted the school day and caused panic. An individual threatened to “shoot-up” the school, which forced the administration to close the school and investigate. The person responsible could only be charged with a misdemeanor, even though the threat caused serious panic and cost the community time and money for law enforcement actions, lost work time and more.
Brooks and I authored the bill to make any threat to cause death, bodily injury or property damage by any means to prevent the occupation of a building, vehicle or other public place of assembly into a Class I felony. The law also applies if the individual intends to cause interruption or public panic. The penalty for a Class I felony in Wisconsin is a fine up to $10,000 and/or a prison sentence of up to three years and six months. The law aligned penalties for terrorist threats, such as threatening to shoot children at a school, with existing penalties for making a bomb threat.
Chief Becker told me that the Reedsburg Police Department and other departments have quietly applied this law, and he believes it has been effective. He said that while the charges are not widely publicized because many of the offenders are minors, the classmates of the students who make threats notice their absence at school and know why they are absent. It causes would-be offenders to pause before they make a threat, even an empty one, because there are serious consequences.
Chief Becker said, “We needed not only a deterrent but a means to affect a change. Having a felony charge, at a minimum, permits law enforcement to remove a person from their current location, i.e. home, school, work, and place them in custody where a judge can make a determination on their ability to be released. There is no $150 cash bond, as is the case of disorderly conduct. There are instant consequences to their poor decision. It’s not the job of law enforcement to be concerned with a conviction, that’s the District Attorney’s job. We want the ability to act immediately in a manner appropriate with the threat. That wasn’t getting done prior to the passage of terrorist threats.
“Safety is both real and perceived. People do not ‘feel’ safe when an individual makes a threat and is released shortly thereafter. This law works because it provides a feeling of safety and accountability, where disorderly conduct doesn’t come close. EVERY threat has to be taken seriously; we only have to read today’s paper or online reports. Wisconsin law enforcement isn’t interested in ‘dropping the ball’ in these investigations. We want every tool we can get to help in the early identification and detection of potentially dangerous people before they carry out some tragic act.”
The intent of this law was to strengthen the consequences for threats. Terrorism is based on creating fear and soliciting a response. All too often, young people consider threats to be less serious than taking action because they don’t fully intend to follow through on their threat. But they often don’t realize that the law enforcement and public response to a threat will be significant no matter their intent because our society must take them seriously. The costs are high, empty threat or not. Based on the feedback from Chief Becker, our legislation has accomplished the intended objective.