At the one-year anniversary of the death of George Floyd, some area law enforcement agencies have been experiencing challenges finding qualified new officers, but are refusing to settle for inferior candidates.
According to a recent study conducted by the non-partisan, citizen-supported, non-profit journalism entity The Badger Project, the number of law enforcement officers in the state and the number of law enforcement academy graduates here have fallen to the lowest points in at least a decade.
The group made this statement based on data from the Wisconsin Department of Justice.
“Wisconsin has about 13,600 law enforcement officers at the moment,” Peter Cameron of The Badger Project said. “That’s down from a decade high of nearly 16,000 in 2012. And the state graduated only 766 people from law enforcement academies in fiscal year 2020, according to the most recent data from the state’s DOJ. That number has been dropping gradually since a decade-high 954 people graduated from academies in fiscal year 2012.”
Although the decreases are small, they are occurring while the state’s population is on the rise. Wisconsin grew from about 5.7 million to about 5.9 million in the last decade, according to the U.S. Census. That’s an increase of about 4%.
There are numerous reasons there is a shortage of personnel in some law enforcement agencies. These range, in part, from people having difficulty in obtaining proper law enforcement training and the multiple demands of the job, to its dangers and the lack of respect, in some circles, for police.
The “cop crunch” is not a new phenomenon, said Meghan Stroshine, an associate professor of social and cultural sciences at Marquette University who studies policing, but it has accelerated in recent years as law enforcement has come under greater public scrutiny.
The rise of cell phone and bodycam videos showing killings and abuse of people in police custody has forced a national conversation on law enforcement.
“All of those have contributed to a very difficult climate for potential officers,” Stroshine said. “You just have a lot of people who are not interested in that scrutiny.”
Dodge County Sheriff Dale Schmidt said recruitment has been challenging for many years.
“The events of the last year and beyond have not made it easier,” he said. “While the climate for wanting to have a career in law enforcement has been challenging, other challenges have changed the face of law enforcement recruitment for years.”
When Schmidt graduated with his college degree, theschool he attended incorporated the law enforcement academy into its two-year curriculum certification track.
“Most technical colleges with a two-year degree in criminal justice did,” he said. “This was very advantageous, because when we finished with our degree, it made it possible to immediately go into the law enforcement field. Now, many of those colleges no longer offer the certification track, and as a result, those candidates now have to attend a full-time 720-hour academy that lasts 18 weeks after their graduation.There are many unintended consequences of the elimination of the certification track.”
Schmidt said attendance at each academy is controlled due to capacity limits set by the colleges holding the academy. He said The frequency of each academy is limited by the colleges only being able to hold about three academy classes per year, due to the length of the academy.
“Individuals who want to get into the field, but who have not yet been hired, have a difficult time getting into the academy, due to the shortage of people who are certified, and most academy spots are already reserved by agencies who are forced to send people through the academy as part of their process,” he said. “The cost for a student to attend the academy on their own is expensive and participating in a full-time 18-week academy leaves very little time to be employed while attending the academy as a means to afford the academy, let alone (pay for) living expenses.”
Schmidt called it, “a never-ending cycle.” He said law enforcement agencies that never needed to send people through the academy now have to send new hires through the academy regularly.
“Those who want to go through the academy on their own are not able to get in and the backlog just keeps getting worse,” he said. “The costs for attending the academy when a law enforcement agency sponsors a new hire to attend the academy now fall on the state to pay for the full academy. In the past, a student wanting to get themselves ready for a job would pay for the academy on their own. This leads to a huge deficit each year in the State of Wisconsin Department of Justice budget.”
Schmidt said it is rumored the state academy may be extended to 900 hours, adding another month on to the academy.
“This means that the academy would last 22 weeks, and then our field training program would last another 16-17 weeks and new hires would not hit the streets on their own for almost 10 months after their start date,” he said. “Before extending the academy, the backlog needs to be addressed.”
When Schmidt was hired in law enforcement, he competed with more than 100 candidates for one position, but that is no longer the case.
“I believe a big part of that is due to the processes put in place by the state and our colleges,” he said. “I understand that these moves may have been well-intentioned, but there are unintended consequences that have never been addressed. Until those issues are addressed, we will continue to struggle with recruitment in our field.”
Schmidt called recruitment of officers today “tough.”
“Finding qualified candidates who pass the background investigations and psychological examinations is very difficult,” he said. “My agency will not lower standards and we will continue to search for the best, even if it takes a little longer to find them. Finally, the recruitment crunch is not limited to just law enforcement, but the difficulties also extend to correctional officers and communications officers as well.”
Other law enforcement leaders from around the area and state concurred with Schmidt.
“My agency has seen a decline in candidates applying for police officer positions and I think many factors are the cause. The COVID-19 pandemic has played a part by reducing, or limiting, attendance at police academies,” Juneau Police Chief David Beal said. “The past couple of years, with elected officials and the media casting officers as bad people and the verbal and physical abuse directed at officers, this, no doubt, has made many reconsider law enforcement as a career choice. It is extremely difficult for smaller agencies to compete with the larger police agencies when it comes to hiring. The larger agency, often, can offer higher wages, more advancement opportunities and can also send them through the police academy.”
Jefferson County Sheriff’s Department Capt. Margo Gray, who serves as jail administrator, has been with the department since December of 1994 and could not recall a time when the department was at full staff.
“We’ve been close, but not full staff,” she said. “I know when I applied for Jefferson County, I was a correctional officer with Walworth County and there were between 150 and 200 applicants that took the test. When we test now, we are lucky to have between 30 and 50 individuals taking the test.”
Gray became more involved in the hiring process when she was promoted to captain/jail administrator in June 2019.
“We did notice the decline in the number of applicants and in 2019 we started our recruitment and retention team,” Gray said. “This team started coming together just prior to COVID-19, but once COVID hit, everything came to a standstill from the recruitment standpoint. The team was able to attend the University of Wisconsin-Platteville Career Fair prior to the end of 2019, where we were able to meet with numerous individuals who were looking to start their law enforcement careers. We also have started to utilize social media such as Facebook, Instagram and Twitter more frequently to develop a connection with the public and potential candidates.We are hoping that, after things settle down with COVID, we can get back on the recruitment trail and draw some more quality candidates to our agency.”
Gray said the quality of the candidates she and her colleagues at the sheriff’s department have interviewed has been good and the department has been able to hire quality deputies over this past two years.
“The biggest issue we encounter is the length of time it takes from the time they are hired to the time they are able to work independently,” Gray said. “Currently, a new hire, who has no certification will be offline a minimum of 35 weeks before they can be considered part of the staffing levels in the jail.”
Gray said a big concern with replacing individuals who leave the agency is not being able to hire a replacement until the position is officially vacated.
“So there is a considerable amount of downtime when we first hire someone to replace a retirement position,” Gray said. “So I would say we have been pretty fortunate and successful at filling our positions, which can be somewhat attributed to the recruitment and the reputation of the agency.”
David Bauer, the police chief of the 13-officer department in Dodgeville, about an hour west of Madison, said job openings that used to receive 30-40 applications five years ago are now bringing in only a dozen or so.
Bauer, a 30-year-veteran of the Dodgeville Police Department, noted that police are increasingly asked to respond to non-criminal matters, such as mental health crises and homelessness.
“In being asked to do all those things, that leads to a lot of extra stress,” Bauer said. “Guys say, ’That’s not what I trained to do.’ I think there are probably less stressful jobs out there.”