Here’s what we can do to keep communities safe.
Wisconsin’s law enforcement officers are retiring in large numbers, and there are fewer and fewer recruits to replace them. This attrition is a public safety threat. Wisconsin needs to increase funding and resources for law enforcement so officers can continue to do their jobs safely and effectively.
We are losing law enforcement officers at an unsustainable rate. Officers have left or are leaving the profession in significant numbers.
Milwaukee police say they experienced a spike in retirements over the summer and early fall. Similarly, Madison’s Acting Chief of Police Vic Wahl recently said that Madison has faced a bigger than average number of departures. He attributed these retirements, in part, to “the negative media narrative about policing and a vocal activist community that is anti-police.”
The story is similar in New York, Denver, Chicago, Pittsburgh, San Francisco, Austin, and Minneapolis. Whether as a result of growing antagonism to police, demographic factors or both, officers are retiring in droves.
But not only are many officers departing, fewer recruits are taking their places.
Even before last summer, law enforcement agencies faced shrinking applicant pools, and this downward trend surely has increased. One study revealed that 63% of law enforcement agencies across the country saw a decrease in police applicants. In many towns and cities, fewer and fewer recruits are joining law enforcement.
It seems intuitive that a smaller police presence leads to increased crime, since criminals will believe their likelihood of getting caught decreases. And that’s what the data reflect.
One study found that an increased police presence reduces robbery, larceny, auto theft, and perhaps even murder. Another study discovered that a greater police presence reduces violent crime and property crime. A natural experiment during World War II showed that crime rates in Denmark increased significantly after Nazi soldiers removed the Danish police force. Other exhaustive studies find similar results. A greater police presence tends to lower crime.
To be sure, how municipalities use their officers is as important as the number of officers they have. A municipality can hire hundreds of officers but fail to use them appropriately by ignoring high crime areas, for example. But for law enforcement to meet the numerous demands we place on them, departments require numbers sufficient to the task.
Also troubling, the response times of first responders will increase with a smaller force, which puts people at greater risk of injury. Police will have to cover the same amount of territory but with fewer officers, leaving them spread out and less able to respond quickly to calls.
And there are numerous calls.
A recent report found that Milwaukee’s Police and Fire Departments receive about 1 million telephone calls a year, which includes 400,000 911 calls, and 600,000 non-emergency calls. Response times on those calls certainly will increase if there are fewer officers.
What’s more, a smaller force will have fewer officers for community policing. Nearly everyone agrees that community policing is positive. When law enforcement officers get to know their communities, and those communities get to know their officers, they build trust. That trust helps officers do their jobs more effectively and safely. With fewer officers, the ability to engage in that kind of sustained, personalized policing diminishes. A smaller force may even cause some departments to loosen their hiring standards at a time when the public wants law enforcement to be more educated and better trained.
Wisconsin must provide greater resources to law enforcement to help them recruit, retain and recover.
To aid with recruitment, the state should consider forgiving portions of law enforcement officers’ student loans. Texas recently passed legislation that provides officers a maximum of $20,000 in state aid to pay off their loans. To be eligible for the assistance, an officer would need to have at least one year of experience in law enforcement. Wisconsin could adopt a similar proposal to help attract more young people into the field.
Forgiving a portion of their student loans is particularly important in an era when the public expects a variety of skills from police officers. We ask that law enforcement care for residents with serious mental health issues. We ask them to take care of the homeless. We demand that they deal with people who are drunk, high and hostile. We want them to solve crimes and prevent them, often working with people who are combative.
And as we expect more from law enforcement, municipalities will likely desire recruits with bachelor’s degrees and training in a variety of areas. Forgiving portions of their student loans could be an effective incentive to recruit officers sufficient to these tasks. Indeed, a stronger connection between the University of Wisconsin System and law enforcement agencies could create a wider pipeline from universities to law enforcement.
To help with retention, Wisconsin should also increase officer wellness support. The state should consider worker’s compensation for officers diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder as a result of their work. As policing becomes harder and harder, the mental and physical tolls add up. Providing support to officers would seem to be an important step. If we want officers to be more humane in their work, we should assist them as they process the traumatic events they endure. Those who encounter significant trauma should not be forced to choose between returning to work wounded or leaving their profession in order to mend.
Further, as suggested by the Wisconsin Professional Police Association, the state should consider privacy protections that would provide confidentiality to law enforcement officers who seek peer support. We expect emotionally healthy law enforcement officers. Given the horrors many of them see in the line of work, they deserve help without fear of public shaming or worse. Providing this help will keep them in their careers longer.
The state also should authorize the funding of body cameras for every law enforcement officer on patrol. Time after time, body cameras have shown that police behaved appropriately and consistent with their training and the law, even after unofficial poor-quality cell phone clips suggested otherwise. Body cameras can protect officers from mistaken narratives that threaten them and their profession.
Not only do body cameras protect officers, they also enhance accountability, which is good for policed communities and the institutional legitimacy of law enforcement. Equipping every officer with a body camera will allow policymakers and the public to identify any errors officers do make. That video footage can be used in termination proceedings, in training videos and in court. To be sure, body cameras are expensive, but they are worth it to protect the legitimacy of law enforcement and to meet the demands of accountability and transparency.
Like everyone else, law enforcement deserves a square deal. That means judging officers by their actions. If we are to judge them by their actions, we must collect data on those actions. Until recently, the state collected very little systematic data on police behavior. The problem is that a data vacuum can allow false narratives about police to form. The state should work to expand its data collection on police use of force and other topics so that it can reform where needed and rebut false claims when necessary.
If we are going to hold law enforcement personnel to high standards — and we should — we must give them the tools to accomplish their tasks. Right now, we are not. As a consequence, they are leaving us. We must reverse that trend because it is a public safety threat. Together, we must provide them the tools needed to do their jobs safely and effectively.
Ryan J. Owens is an attorney, the George C. and Carmella P. Edwards professor of American Politics, and the director of the Tommy G. Thompson Center on Public Leadership at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He writes this in his personal capacity. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org