Wisconsin's largest police union contends that Gov. Scott Walker has come up short on pledges to support law enforcement officials and protect public safety.
The Wisconsin Professional Police Association points to crime statistics compiled by the FBI and the state Department of Justice that show a spike in violent crimes during Walker's time in office.
It's a big step to connect a governor's tenure with an increase in crime, and the union isn't saying Walker is personally responsible. But its members have noted several policy decisions they believe have negatively impacted public safety in the state.
The WPPA — the largest rank-and-file police organization in the state — used that information in its decision to endorse Democrat Mary Burke in the governor's race. The Wisconsin Troopers Association, which represents Wisconsin State Patrol officers, endorsed Walker.
According to FBI statistics, Wisconsin saw an 18.7 percent increase in violent crime from 2011 to 2012, and a nearly 12 percent increase from 2010 to 2012. Walker took office in January 2011. 2012 is the most recent year for which complete state-level crime data is available.
Among Midwestern states, those percentage increases are the second-largest for both time periods. Wisconsin outpaced Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, North Dakota and Ohio. South Dakota saw larger percentage increases than Wisconsin, although its total number of violent crimes is significantly lower.
At the national level, violent crime increased by less than 1 percent from 2011 to 2012, and fell by about 2.5 percent from 2010 to 2012.
State reports compiled by the Department of Justice show an 11.2 percent increase in violent crime from 2011 to 2012 and a 13.1 percent increase from 2010 to 2012. The measures differ, in part, because the FBI and DOJ counts measure slightly different periods of time. WPPA executive director Jim Palmer said the state numbers are typically more accurate, but added the FBI's Uniform Crime Reporting numbers are accepted as the "gold standard" in the law enforcement community.
Palmer said Walker's cuts to shared revenue and the spending controls imposed on local governments have resulted in fewer "real dollars" — that is, totals adjusted for inflation — being spent on law enforcement since Walker took office.
"We think it’s a legitimate observation to point out in the wake of all these things, violent crime has increased at a rate that not only far exceeds what has happened nationally, but also in every other Midwestern state but one," Palmer said.
Laurel Patrick, spokeswoman for the governor's office, pointed out that PolitiFact had addressed the union's claim on Thursday that "Wisconsin has become less safe than it was when Scott Walker took office" and rated it "Mostly False."
PolitiFact's analysis pointed out that a measure of crime through 2012 only accounts for about half of the governor's term, leaving a "significant unknown" for the second half.
"In 2012, Walker’s second year in office, violent crime increased and he reduced funding to local governments. But the available violent crime data cover only about half of Walker’s time in office, so the union’s statement is based at best on a partial picture. Beyond that, a number of factors other than the governor bear on the rate of violent crime," the analysis read.
Of the PolitiFact assessment, Palmer said given that the fact-check "acknowledged that Gov. Walker imposed the single largest cut in at least a decade to the local government funding used to help support police services, and that he limited the ability of local governments to raise other revenues, it is simply inexplicable and absurd for them to determine that he has no responsibility for the consequences that he helped cause."
Palmer conceded that a variety of dynamics are involved in violent crime rates. Socioeconomic and cultural factors, economic issues and more can contribute, he said.
And although the governor is responsible for determining funding for local governments, Palmer also admitted that — much like the issue of job creation — the governor ultimately might not have much control over improvements or setbacks.
But he said statements Walker has made in recent years, especially during earlier campaigns, have opened him up to criticism on what's happened since he took office.
In 2008, as Milwaukee County executive, he touted his stance as a candidate who was "serious about fighting crime and about putting criminals into prison."
During his 2010 campaign for governor, his website hosted this statement: "Government's first duty is to provide for the safety of its citizens. This means protecting the rights of crime victims and providing the brave men and women in Wisconsin law enforcement the resources they need to keep our schools and neighborhoods safe."
And a 2011 post on his Facebook page touts a budget that "protects public safety."
Because of those representations, Palmer said, the WPPA believes its observations of crime patterns under Walker's leadership are fair.
The governor's first budget, passed in 2011, delivered the single largest cut to shared revenue in a decade — $76 million, or 9 percent. Walker also imposed strict limits on local governments' ability to raise property taxes to make up for those cuts.
In addition to those cuts, Palmer pointed to data from the state Office of Justice Assistance that show, among the state's law enforcement agencies, a 1.8 percent decrease in the number of officers, a 3.8 percent decrease in the number of civilian employees and a total staffing reduction of 2.4 percent from 2010 to 2012.
Staffing decisions are, for the most part, determined by local agencies, but Palmer said dwindling support from the state level is a contributing factor.
He also said the decision, under Walker's leadership, to no longer require a police and fire fee be used for public safety purposes has "probably" contributed to the decline in staffing, though he added it's hard to quantify exactly what influences it.
Another dynamic that's troubling to law enforcement officers, Palmer said, is the number of assaults on officers in the line of duty. In 2008, there were 376 assaults on officers. In 2012, there were 725 — an increase of 93 percent. That is likely attributed to lower staffing, Palmer said, adding that with fewer officers on duty, fewer officers are available for backup.
Although the WPPA endorsed Burke, it has supported a number of measures under Walker's leadership, including the passage of a law that requires officer-involved shootings to be investigated by an outside agency, one that makes it easier for military veterans to enter law enforcement and one that updated training requirements for officers.
"Gov. Walker has signed several measures into law to address violent crime in Wisconsin. Most recently, he signed into law funding for the Shot Spotter program in Milwaukee giving law enforcement in Milwaukee another tool to keep residents and visitors safe," Patrick said in an email.
Walker signed the funding into law after Republican state lawmakers partially reversed course on a decision to trim funds for the program, which uses sensors to identify where shots are being fired in real time. In May 2013, the Legislature's Joint Finance Committee signed off on Walker's plan to cut a $445,400 community policing grant for Milwaukee over two years. After receiving a demonstration of the program and its value, lawmakers decided to provide $175,000 for the program to match the amount Milwaukee County would put toward it. Walker approved the funding in April.
The WPPA endorsed Waukesha County District Attorney Brad Schimel, a Republican, in the state attorney general race. In legislative races, it has endorsed both Republican and Democratic candidates.
Palmer said the organization hopes to spark a public dialogue about public safety that will lead to more informed, thoughtful discussions at the policy level.
"Scott Walker drastically cut local government funding, limited what they could raise and otherwise spend, and in PolitiFact’s assessment, local governments are to blame for the increase in crime that Wisconsin has endured since," Palmer said. "For years, the law enforcement community has successfully done more with less, and the data that we uncovered indicates that we are now doing less with less. At some point, we think there ought to be a genuine public policy discussion about that."