Wisconsin GOP lawmakers want to incentivize law enforcement with federal COVID relief funds

MADISON, Wis. — Republican lawmakers in the Assembly introduced a package of bills Tuesday that would provide bonuses and incentives to new and current law enforcement officers across Wisconsin, using about $25 million from the federal COVID relief funds.

The push is designed to address recruitment and retention issues among law enforcement, a state and nationwide problem. Gov. Evers is responsible for the disbursement of most of those American Rescue Plan Act funds, and has turned down past attempts from GOP lawmakers to control them.

His office had not yet seen the bills Tuesday afternoon and didn’t comment on them directly, but pointed to declining shared revenue from the legislature over the past two decades as a contributing factor to fewer officers in Wisconsin today.

The bill package is in response to what law enforcement officials say is the lowest total number of officers in Wisconsin in a decade, as well as rising crime rates state and nationwide. According to the Wisconsin Department of Justice, there’s about 13,500 active officers in Wisconsin currently, down from about 13,900 in 2012.

The bills would provide $5,000 initial bonuses to new officers, $1,000/year to officers recruited from out of state (capped at $10,000), and $2,000 bonuses to all full-time officers currently employed ($1,000 from ARPA funds, $1,000 from local municipalities).

“We know that we want our communities to be safe, and we know that law enforcement plays a key role in that,” Rep. Mark Born (R-Beaver Dam). “This package of bills will help us retain, recruit, and train more folks to help with that important mission in our communities.”

Lawmakers said more than 400 of the state’s 561 law enforcement agencies would be eligible to have firearms, equipment, and some training covered by federal relief funds under a grant program created by one of the bills, targeted at agencies with fewer than 25 officers.

The legislation would also double the reimbursement that officers can get from the state for annual recertification costs, from $160 to $320. The bills would also require two technical colleges to implement part-time police academy courses, and help cover academy costs for officers.

According to the U.S. Treasury, ARPA funds are designed to respond to the aftermath of the pandemic, which includes local lost revenue, address systemic public health challenges, and support infrastructure and economic stabilization.

It wouldn’t be the first use of the funds for public employee bonuses, however. In December, Sioux City voted to use $250,000 of federal relief funds to give all city employees a $300 bonus. The town of Ulster, New York used about $35,000 to cover bonuses for employees who had worked through the pandemic.

Law enforcement officials in attendance–police chiefs from Rice Lake and West Allis, and the Dodge County sheriff–pointed to issues hiring and keeping their staff.

“Recruiting and retention are down because of a pendulum where people said it was no longer honorable to be a police officer or a sheriff’s deputy which is absolutely crazy to me,” West Allis police chief Pat Mitchell said. 

Wisconsin, like the country, is in the middle of an overall labor shortage; additionally, law enforcement recruitment has been worsening for years in Wisconsin.

“The WPPA is seriously concerned about the implications that this kind of continuing reduction can have on officer safety and public safety as a whole,” Jim Palmer said, executive director of the state’s largest police union. “While we are reviewing the measures proposed in the state legislature today, we appreciate the consideration of ways to curb the sharp decline in the number of officers working throughout the state.”

Democrats point to declining shared revenue from the legislature as contributing to the crisis, and say Gov. Evers’ efforts to fix that have been rejected by the GOP-led legislature the last two budget cycles.

“That funding stream has been frozen for two decades, and the current majority party has rejected the governor’s budget the last two times,” Rep. Evan Goyke (D-Milwaukee) said in an interview.  “The last four years, they’ve said no to increases to local units of government.”

Law enforcement budgets have declined throughout Wisconsin as a result of the lack of shared revenue and an inability of small local governments to bridge the gap, according to data from the Wisconsin Department of Revenue.

Rep. Goyke says he doesn’t oppose the use of federal COVID relief funds to increase the wages for public employees, but believes this legislation is a short-term fix to a long-term problem.

“I would like to see a long-term solution to what has been described as a long-term problem by law enforcement,” he said. “Using one-time federal funds does not accomplish that long-term solution that local governments in Wisconsin need.”