MADISON, Wis. — Wisconsin Republicans introduced a package of bills Tuesday designed to bolster police recruiting with lucrative financial incentives, after officer applications dwindled following George Floyd’s death and the national debate over police brutality and racism.
West Allis Police Chief Pat Mitchell said at a news conference announcing the bills that the number of officer applicants has been shrinking for a decade and the situation has only got worse in the two years since Floyd died.
Floyd, who was Black, died in Minneapolis in 2020 after a white police officer, Derek Chauvin, pressed his knee onto Floyd’s neck during an arrest. Video of the incident triggered protests around the country. A jury convicted Chauvin in April 2021 of murder and manslaughter.
A Police Executive Research Forum survey conducted in June 2021, a little more than a year after Floyd’s death, found an 18% increase in resignations and a 45% increase in retirements compared to the previous year. Agencies with fewer than 250 officers saw an increase in hiring rates but larger agencies struggled to fill vacancies. Departments with 250-499 officers saw a 29% reduction in their hiring rate and departments with at least 500 officers saw a 36% reduction.
Jim Palmer, executive director of the Wisconsin Professional Police Association, the state’s largest police union, said Wisconsin law enforcement agencies don’t collect data on the number of job applicants. But he said about 13,600 officers work in Wisconsin right now, down from 16,000 a decade ago, which suggests fewer people are entering law enforcement.
“What we witnessed is a condemnation of our entire profession for the actions of one,” Mitchell said. “It’s hurt our recruiting. It’s hurt our retention. … We’re only as good as the quality of people we hire.”
The bills would create $5,000 signing bonuses for police applicants and $2,000 retention bonuses for officers who stay on the job for at least a year. Local departments would have to pay half of the retention bonus and the state would cover the rest. Officers who relocate to Wisconsin and stay on the job for at least three years would be eligible for annual bonuses capped at $10,000.
The legislation would double the state reimbursement for annual officer recertification from $160 to $320; require at least two technical colleges to establish part-time police academies to attract recruits who work full-time; reimburse small departments for equipment and training costs up to $10,000; and create a marketing campaign to attract officer recruits.
About $25 million in federal COVID-19 pandemic relief would be used to fund the initiatives.
“We’re working to re-fund rather than defund the police,” Rep. William Pentermen, one of the package’s authors, said during the news conference, riffing on civil rights advocates’ call following Floyd’s death to cut police budgets.
The bills also would bar local governments from banning no-knock search warrants, and would require schools to teach students in grades 5 to 12 how to respect and cooperate with police officers, although school boards could vote to opt out of the mandate.
“Providing the public with a stronger understanding of their rights and responsibilities while interacting with law enforcement would create a solid foundation of mutual cooperation and respect,” the bill’s author, Rep. David Murphy, said in an email to other lawmakers seeking co-sponsors. “The best place to create this foundation is in our schools.”
Assembly Speaker Robin Vos tweeted that it’s “completely logical” to use COVID-19 relief funds to power the legislation since police have had to deal directly with the pandemic’s effects, including people’s mental health challenges and rising crime.
Adam Gibbs, a spokesman for Senate Majority Devin LeMahieu, said LeMahieu couldn’t be reached for comment. Britt Cudaback, a spokeswoman for Democratic Gov. Tony Evers, also didn’t immediately respond to a message.
Democratic lawmakers lined up to criticize the package.
Assembly Minority Leader Gordon Hintz said if Republicans wanted to help police departments they should have approved the state aid that Evers laid out for municipalities in the two budgets he has proposed since taking office.
Rep. David Bowen chastised Republicans for not consulting Democrats and Evers when they drew up the bills. He accused them of playing political games with federal COVID-19 dollars they don’t control.
Rep. Jodi Emerson called the package “an election year stunt.”