Wisconsin Police Find It Hard To Find New Recruits

Police departments across Wisconsin have seen assaults on police officers rise and the total number of sworn in officers and even applicants for officers positions fall over the last decade.

The Wisconsin Professional Police Association, a policing interest group, has heard of hardships in recruiting across the state. WPPA Executive Director Jim Palmer said there is no real data kept on decreasing numbers, but that he has been hearing anecdotal stories across the state.

“The number of applicants are significantly down,” Palmer said. “And that’s been very consistent for probably at least the last year, it may go back a little bit more than that, but we’ve really been hearing about those on a broader scale within the last year.”

Palmer said that the WPPA asked several hundred officers at its annual convention, “do you agree or disagree that your department is having difficulty attracting qualified candidates?” He said more than 80 percent of respondents agreed.

Although there is little data available for the number of applicants, the federal Criminal Justice Information Services Division does keep track of the number of law enforcement employees by state.

The “law enforcement employees” statistic includes civilians, while “officers” are those sworn in. The number of sworn officers in Wisconsin fell from 13,120 in 2009 to 12,504 in 2013, and rose slightly to 12,776 in 2014. The total law enforcement employees followed a similar pattern of falling then rising slightly in 2014, which is the last year for which data is available.

“When you combine the fact that the overall number of law enforcement officers working in Wisconsin has declined with the fact that or very strong sense that there are fewer people applying for those jobs, it does seem to be in many respects a potential recipe for disaster,” Palmer said.

Despite the falling number of applicants and officers employed, non-fatal assaults on police officers have risen dramatically over the last decade.

In 2005 there were only 364 assaults on officers in Wisconsin. That number rose to 1,022 by 2007. The same year the national and Midwestern number of assault on officers spiked. But while the national and Midwestern number has steadily declined since 2007, it actually rose in Wisconsin for several years, peaking with 1,560 in 2010. By 2014 it was down to 622 in Wisconsin.

From 2005-2014, police assaults on officers across the nation and in the Midwest have fallen approximately 16 percent. Conversely, they have risen 71 percent in Wisconsin, according to the data from the federal Criminal Justice Information Services Division.

While there is no causal relationship that has been established between the assaults and the declining employment and applicant numbers, police departments across the state are being forced to change their practices when attracting applicants.

Some departments are attempting to recruit to a wider base of potential applicants, while others are getting more creative in their efforts. Capt. Matt Barnes, of the Wausau Police Department, said his department has seen dramatic decreases in applicant numbers.

“It was not unusual 15, 20 years ago to have an opening and receive between 200 and 400 applicants,” Barnes said. “And we used to do closed application periods. And now we have to run a continuous application process, which allows us collect more applications. But the reality is for those same positions, instead of hundreds, now we start with a number somewhere between 30 and 50.”

One way Wausau has fought this problem was through a simple video on their homepage that lists the values of WPD through department employees. One of the department’s lieutenants created the video while completing a required continuing education course, according to Barnes.

“We’ve gotten a lot of really positive feedback from our community and from people who are applying for jobs,” Barnes said. “Like, ‘Why did you apply for Wausau?’ ‘I saw that video and I thought that’s the type of place I want to work.’”

Sheboygan Police Chief Chris Domagalski went before the Police and Fire Commission recently to ask they interview five more candidates to fill two vacancies after several other candidates dropped out for various reasons. They are down to the last applicants of the original pool.

He said SPD has not yet seen a decrease in applicants, but that he has seen it in other communities.

“The number of applicants is way down in most communities,” he said. “I would say one of the phenomena that other police chiefs have shared at our meetings is that the number of female candidates is down drastically. And in a climate where we’re trying to increase the number of female officers that we’re attracting and minority candidates, to see those numbers drop make it even that much more difficult.”

Domagalski said the department will likely have to fill five vacancies next year in addition to the two this year.

“Our numbers aren’t really down, we haven’t seen the same thing but if it’s happening everywhere else I think it’s bound to happen here,” he said. “We have to try to take whatever steps we can to stay ahead of that so that we’re still able to attract the high quality of people that we want.”

No matter how far numbers fall, both Domagalski and Barnes said reduced applicant numbers cannot be addressed with laxer requirements because the nature of police work.

“And at the end of the day, we feel so strongly about the importance of our candidate’s character, as opposed to their super police skills. Because we hire for character and we train for skills,” Barnes said.

From The Sheboygan Press

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