FRANKLIN — Law enforcement agencies across southeastern Wisconsin say their biggest challenge right now is hiring and retaining officers.
More than an dozen agency leaders gathered in Franklin Thursday for a round-table discussion with Congressman Bryan Steil. Several sheriffs and chiefs say they are nearing a crisis in which they are unable to find quality officers to replace the ones who are leaving the profession.
A row of sheriffs and chiefs sounded off one after another about a lack of community support carrying over from last summer’s protests.
“Too often I see a lot of bashing and a lot of negativity,” said Racine County Sheriff Christopher Schmaling.
Kenosha police officer Javier Vega says it’s causing officers to retire as soon as they’re eligible, and their potential replacements choose other careers.
"The issue we're having with police officer retention is that nobody wants to be a police officer anymore,” Vega said.
Muskego Police Chief Stephen Westphal says an officer shortage puts efforts to engage with the public on the back burner.
“I don't know how I'm going to staff my dispatch center in the future, how I'm going to staff my officers, just to make sure I'm getting to where I need to be to cover my shifts,” Chief Westphal said.
Milwaukee Police Association President Dale Bormann says it’s leaving fewer officers to respond to emergencies.
“Every citizen who calls in who's having a problem is going to have to wait, and it's not wait a minute or two or like a lot of people think, it's wait 60 minutes, wait 90 minutes for an officer to arrive - and every officer absolutely hates doing that,” Bormann said.
Wisconsin Department of Justice data shows it’s a statewide issue. There are currently about 13,500 law enforcement officers in Wisconsin, the lowest number in at least a decade. Meanwhile, homicides in Milwaukee went up nearly 100 percent in 2020, going from 97 in 2019 to 190 last year.
Bormann says MPD’s staff is the lowest it’s ever been and requests for investments in officers and equipment are being denied.
“The mayor's office has said that they don't want to hire anybody and the alderpersons have said the same thing too,” Bormann said. “My paperwork I have as of the end of July, we're down 161 positions.”
Late last year, Milwaukee’s Common Council voted to turn down federal funding for 30 more police officers in Milwaukee. In a joint statement at the time, council members said, “People can no longer accept a police department that takes so much and spends what it has in ways that they do not believe truly protect them."
One month later, the council reversed course and voted to accept the money with the understanding that MPD "reimagines policing to better respond to the present moment."
Congressman Steil says he’s pushing to pass legislation that would provide funding to local law enforcement agencies to pay for equipment that enhances transparency such as body cameras and video storage systems.