Madison Police Chief Mike Koval is pointing to “the unrelenting toxicity of the incessant criticism and scapegoating of the police” as a primary reason for why the number of people applying to be a Madison police officer has dropped by more than 40 percent over the last five years, and the number of those leaving the department has more than doubled.
Local police reformers, meanwhile, acknowledge that while negative perceptions of police may affect officer recruitment and retention, low unemployment, the retirement of baby boomers and other factors also play roles — not just in Madison, but across the country.
“It’s a national pattern,” said Greg Gelembiuk, a local police critic and member of the activist group Community Response Team.
Data from police show applications to the 468-officer department totaled 888 in 2014, and have been falling every year since. As of Wednesday, total applicants were 497. For all of 2017, there were 573.
Resignations have spiked this year at 22, after there were between six and nine annually from 2014 through 2017. Retirements have been going up since 2016, when there were 14. Last year there were 18 and already this year there have been 21.
Koval made his sharpest comments in a Nov. 28 blog post in which he bemoaned the negative “’climate’ that is pervasively taking a toll on those who might contemplate serving as a police officer.”
On Wednesday, he excerpted a Washington Post story detailing the drop in applications for police positions nationwide, and reporting on a survey by the Police Executive Research Forum showing high turnover rates for police.
“This is further validation that the necessity for acknowledging the good works and difficult challenges facing cops these days is every bit as important as providing substantive criticism and calls for reform,” Koval wrote.
Madison police union president Dan Frei points to a number of reasons police work is a less-appealing career choice, including news media too quick to put police in a bad light, politicians who make “political hay” by painting themselves as police reformers, and comparatively low pay.
“I tell many of our recruit classes that there are other ways to help people and serve your community that pay as well but don’t involve shift work, bad weather, the danger, what we are exposed to, people spitting or bleeding on you, and what feels like a media assault on you for trying to make a difference,” he said “So they need to see this as more than just a job but a calling.”
Exit interviews with Koval for officers leaving the force are “informal and optional,” according to police spokesman Joel DeSpain, and don’t generate formal reports.
Without such information, longtime Madison Ald. Marsha Rummel, 6th District, said she’d just be “speculating” on why turnover has increased and applications are down in Madison.
“The lack of exit interview data is problematic because it’s not clear if there is a cause or problem we need to attend to or target our recruitment strategies to reach younger workers, etc.,” she said via email. “I plan to ask council leadership to raise the need for exit interviews at their next meeting with the chief and (assistant) chiefs.”
Local criticism of Madison police has increased since the fatal police shooting of Paul Heenan in November 2012 and especially since the March 2015 death of Tony Robinson, an unarmed but intoxicated and combative black 19-year-old who was fatally shot by white Madison police officer Matt Kenny.
In response, council members in August 2016 created a subcommittee that came up with 13 “action items“ related to police, including ones ordering police to develop a “comprehensive” policy on calling for backup, make changes to use-of-force policies, and improve officer mental health.
The City Council also created an ad hoc citizen’s committee to review police policies and procedures. It has been the lead group considering a $372,000 independent study of the department completed last year that found MPD to be “far from ‘a department in crisis’” but still made 146 recommendations for improvement.