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Some Local Governments Want to Rethink How Police Services are Delivered. This Bill Would Make that Harder.

September 10, 2020, by Tamarine Cornelius

A Wisconsin Republican Senator has proposed legislation that would prohibit cities and other local governments from saving money by reducing the amount of money they spend on police staffing. This bill would block innovation in how communities address policing, require local governments to double down on budget cuts in other areas of local services, and disenfranchise people of color by allowing predominantly white state lawmakers to overrule the choices made by local government officials in communities of color. 

Wisconsin lawmakers actually have two police-related law enforcement packages in front of them. Governor Evers called lawmakers into session to consider his proposals to improve police transparency and accountability, but Republican legislative leadership refused to meet, just as they also refused to meet when the Governor ordered special sessions on gun safety and on improving the safety of Wisconsin’s election. 

Instead of holding a floor session to debate  Governor Evers’ recommendations for reforming the police, Republican legislators proposed their own package of bills and created a task force to study the issue. Included in the Republican package is a measure that would dock state aid to municipalities that reduce the amount of money they spend on police officer hiring, recruiting or staffing. This measure would prevent municipalities from saving money by cutting police staffing budgets, since the state aid of the municipalities would be reduced by the same amount of the cut to the police budget. Senator Van Wanggaard, the sponsor of the bill and a former police officer, previously proposed legislation that would make it more difficult for police chiefs to discipline officers accused of wrongdoing.

Here are three reasons the bill prohibiting cuts to police budgets is wrong for Wisconsin:

1. It would block innovation in how communities address policing. 

Police officers are forced to respond to a wide variety of incidents, some of which could be better handled by others, like mental health professionals. That’s something that both police unions and Black Lives Matters activists agree on. But this bill would penalize cities that shifted resources away from police departments and towards other services that would be better suited to address mental health needs.

There is a lot of variation in how much money cities spend on police departments, even when those cities are the same size. This proposal would in effect freeze that variation in place, making it difficult for high-spending cities to save money by bringing their spending down to the same level as other cities. For example, both Muskego and DePere have about 25,000 residents. But Muskego has a police budget of $10.2 million, while DePere’s police budget is $4.9 million, less than half the size of Muskego’s. Under this bill, if Muskego wanted to bring its police budget down closer to the size of DePere’s, the state would punish Muskego by reducing the amount of state support Muskego receives. (This Wisconsin Budget Project database shows the police budgets for the largest Wisconsin cities.) 

2. It would force deeper budget cuts in non-police services.

Police costs make up a major part of local government budgets. In one-third of Wisconsin’s largest cities, policymakers have chosen to spend more on law enforcement than on anything else, including transportation, sanitation, parks and development, or fire and ambulance services. For example, the police budget makes up the largest spending category in the city of Kenosha, which spends about $1 out of every $4 on police. This information about local spending priorities is available at our online law enforcement spending database

The recession caused by the pandemic has decreased the amount of money cities have to fund critical local services like road maintenance, bus routes, and trash pickup. Many cities are going to have to make deep budget cuts that will make it harder for families and businesses to thrive. 

Cities will have to take a hard look at their budgets to see where they can make cuts that will do the least harm. But if the largest share of their budget — in the form of police costs — is in effect shielded from budget cuts, cities will have to double down on budget cuts to other services, which could result in even greater harm to communities. 

3. It would disenfranchise people of color by allowing disproportionately white state lawmakers to overrule the choices made by local government officials in communities with more racial diversity. 

“As a Republican, I believe in local control,” said Wisconsin Assembly Speaker Robin Vos. If that is actually true, then he and other Republicans should oppose this bill, which makes it difficult for local elected representatives to be responsive to the needs of their constituents. Local officials are the ones listening and accountable to city residents about local issues and should be the ones setting local budgets, not state lawmakers. 

This proposal flies directly in the face of local control. It also centralizes power in the hands of the mostly white, Republican-led legislature, and takes power away from local officials whose racial makeup is closer to that of the community. In the entire history of Wisconsin, there has only been a single black Republican who served in the state legislature — and he was elected in 1906. When the legislature wrests decision-making power away from cities like Milwaukee, which is mostly made up of residents of color, we make it harder for people of color to fully participate in the decisions that affect their communities. Black and Latinx residents of Wisconsin are more than twice as likely as White residents to favor cutting police budgets, a Marquette University poll shows

Wisconsin residents are calling for police reform, but this proposal would not make police more responsive to community needs. Instead, it would serve as a power grab that makes it difficult for cities to set their own budget priorities, and would transfer decision-making power from local communities, including communities of color, to the state legislature.