Wisconsin law enforcement agencies have struggled to recruit and retain new officers for years, but last year’s anti-police rhetoric and political climate, in addition to a pandemic, have only made things worse.
While statistics show a nationwide drop in hiring in the law enforcement industry, with a significant increase in resignations and retirements, Wisconsin faces an even more dire situation.
Executive director of the Wisconsin Professional Police Association Jim Palmer explained the situation succinctly.
“There are more options for younger people today that pay better and don’t require them to put their lives and personal safety risk, and they don’t carry that significant enhanced scrutiny,” he said.
Wisconsin Public Radio (WPR) found a 7% decline in local police officers and sheriff’s deputies in the state — which amounts to a loss of roughly 740 people.
Professor Peter Moskos, with the John Jay College of Criminal Justice, blamed the staffing challenges on protests, saying it is mostly affecting cities.
“In the cities that have had protests and issues, there have been an outflow of officers from those departments,” Moskos said.
According to WPR, Madison and Milwaukee experienced massive protests and calls for defunding their police departments. The Milwaukee Police Department particularly has been hit with increased scrutiny and backlash following several fatal encounters between officers and Black community members.
Last year, 131 Milwaukee officers retired — marking a 40% increase from the year before. Over the last five years, 500 police officers have decided to turn in their badge.
Milwaukee Police Chief Jeffrey Norman said the department is struggling with the loss of officers.
“We need to have, again, something that we have not had in a long time — a consistency of a transition of when those particular type of individuals move on, are we able to continue to lift without having a blip on the radar,” said Norman.
Due to budget constraints, the Milwaukee Police Academy has had to reduce its class sizes. As a result, the new recruits have not been able to keep up with the number of retirements.
Under 2022’s budget, Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett is proposing to divert $6 million from the American Rescue Plan Act to train 195 new officers.
“While 2022 will be a busy year at the [Milwaukee Police Academy], overall, the total strength of the department will be on average 1,657 — not quite keeping pace with retirements,” Barrett said.
Meanwhile, the Madison Police Department received 43.5% fewer applicants from this year’s recruit class due to the effect of COVID-19 on classes.
Madison Police Chief Shon Barnes said officers’ morale is low.
“I’ve heard everything from ‘I don;t feel supported by the rest of the criminal justice system,’ to ‘this job has caused undue stress on my mental health, and I think it’s best that I leave,’” he said.