Wisconsin GOP Introduces Bills With Signing Bonuses to up Declining Police Recruitment

Republicans in the Wisconsin legislature introduced bills Tuesday containing several new policies relating to police recruitment and retention, including significant signing bonuses for new officers.

West Allis Police Chief Pat Mitchell said at a press conference announcing the bills Tuesday that the number of officers on the police force and the number of recruits have been declining for years, and the murder of George Floyd sparking months of protests and debate over police brutality has cut those numbers even further.

About 13,600 officers are currently working in Wisconsin, a decline from the about 16,000 working 10 years ago, according to Jim Palmer, executive director of the Wisconsin Professional Police Association, the state's largest police union.

Palmer said the union doesn't have data regarding the number of applicants, but that decrease suggests lower recruitment numbers over the past decade.

A Police Executive Research Forum survey from June 2021 shows in the year following Floyd's death, resignations rose by 18 percent and retirements increased by 45 percent.

Likely the most significant part of the bills is the bonuses they fund, as applicants could receive $5,000 signing bonuses, along with $2,000 bonuses for staying on the job for at least one year. Local police departments would be responsible for half of the retention bonus, with the rest coming from $25 million in federal pandemic aid funding.

Wisconsin Republicans, Police Recruitment, George Floyd
A Kenosha Police car drives past the Kenosha Courthouse surrounded by surrounded by temporary security gates during curfew in Kenosha, Wisconsin on Aug. 31, 2020. Wisconsin Republicans announced several bills Tuesday designed to increase police recruitment they say has plummeted following the nearly two years of protests and debate over police brutality in the state. Kerem Yucel/AFP via Getty Images

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.

Agencies with fewer than 250 officers saw an increase in hiring rates but larger agencies struggled to fill vacancies, according to the survey. Departments with 250-499 officers saw a 29 percent reduction in their hiring rate and departments with at least 500 officers saw a 36 percent reduction.

"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."

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."

The Associated Press contributed to this report.