The Badger Project

Number of Milwaukee Police Officers Declined 16% in 5 Years

Down from 1,900 officers in 2019 to 1,600 today, but will soon rise.

By , The Badger Project - May 12th, 2024 05:45 pm
The headquarters of the Milwaukee Police Department. Photo: Peter Cameron.

The headquarters of the Milwaukee Police Department. Photo: Peter Cameron.

The total number of officers employed by the Milwaukee Police Department has declined by more than 15% in the last five years, from more than 1,900 to about 1,600.

City budgeting seems to be a big reason for the decrease, though not the only one. After funding for an average of 1,864 police officer positions in 2019, the financially-strapped city steadily dropped the funded total every year, eventually bottoming out at 1,630 in 2019, according to Bryan Rynders, the city of Milwaukee’s budget manager. That’s a decrease of nearly 13%.

In the 2024 budget, bolstered by a state funding boost, the city expanded the number of funded officers to 1,645. The city currently employs about 1,600 officers, according to police department spokesman Sgt. Efrain Cornejo.

The staffing declines are related to losing officers to attrition combined with the budget limitations, Cornejo wrote in an email to The Badger Project.

The drop reflects larger trends in Wisconsin and the rest of the country, as the “cop crunch” sees more officers leaving than are replaced.

The state of Wisconsin continues to lose law enforcement officers as the total number has dropped for many years. But in comparison to Milwaukee, the state has lost only about 7% of its officers patrolling the streets in the last five years.

A series of demographic, cultural, and financial forces have converged to create the “cop crunch,” said Meghan Stroshine, an associate professor at Marquette University who focuses on policing.

She blamed it on “a dramatic increase in retirements among baby boomer and Gen X officers, an increase in voluntary resignations among officers due to low morale and lack of community support, and the inability to hire officers quickly enough to replace those leaving the profession.”

“Departments simply are not able to hire and train officers fast enough to replace those who are leaving the force in exodus-like numbers,” she continued.

The starting annual salary for a Milwaukee police officer is about $65,000.

To try and close the gap, the Milwaukee Police Department is ramping up its recruiting process, said Leon Todd, executive director of the city’s Fire and Police Commission, which oversees some policy at the two departments. The civilian commission recently lost some authority to the departments’ chiefs in the recent bill from the Republican-controlled state legislature that gave Milwaukee and every other local government in Wisconsin more state funding.

“One thing that we have not done, and are not going to do, is lower our hiring standards or eliminate the various testing components that we have right now,” Todd said. “We want to have increased quantity (of officers), but we also want to have quality.”

To get hired at the Milwaukee Police Department, officer candidates have to navigate a process that takes several months and includes written tests and background checks.

“We don’t want just anyone for this job,” Todd said. “It’s a very important job.”

Law enforcement officers in Wisconsin must complete 60 college credits within five years of starting in the job, but are not required to have a degree before they begin working.

The city suffered through a horrific surge in homicides in 2020, 2021 and 2022, with each year setting a new record. That number finally dropped in 2023, and is on pace again to further decrease this year, though still hold above pre-pandemic homicide levels.

According to the terms of the state funding increase, the city of Milwaukee will get $200 million and must hire more than 100 police officers within ten years, to bring its total to 1725. Mayor Cavalier Johnson says the city will do that sooner.

To enhance its emergency response, the city now has five Crisis Assessment Response Teams, consisting of a police officer and a clinician, Cornejo said. The teams help connect individuals in crisis — mental health, suicide, addiction, etc. — with various resources to try to keep them out of custody, and by extension, save the city money.

And the city also employs five community service officers at the moment, Cornejo said. These are civilian employees who respond to low-priority calls for service like theft, non-injury traffic accidents and vandalism.

The Badger Project is a nonpartisan, citizen-supported journalism nonprofit in Wisconsin.

This article first appeared on The Badger Project and is republished here under a Creative Commons license.

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