It is time to ask if we are over-policed. | WisCommunity

It is time to ask if we are over-policed.

 The recent events in Ferguson have shed some light on policing practices in small- to medium-size communities. What we learned about Ferguson is when they are not playing GI Joe they are harassing the populace and writing chickenshit citations to boost revenues.

 It is easy to be facile, as I just was, about some out-town-department of which I know little but the larger question, which does require some examination, is whether or not we are over-policed and is there some kind cost-benefit analysis that can be applied to police departments, especially those in small municipalities.

 I am a retired reporter and covered the police and crime beat in several communities, big and small.   

As you are aware counties in Wisconsin are statutorily required to provide law enforcement for their respective counties as well as providing a jail to house prisoners. However, local municipalities have the option of creating their own police agencies, and many do, despite the fact the local taxpayers will continue to pay taxes to the county to support the sheriff's department. Now they get to "pay twice" for a local police department as well.

 I have always been intrigued by the willingness of local governments, usually run by rock-ribbed conservatives, to burden their taxpayers with this expensive bauble while they curse their school taxes and complain about overpaid teachers.

 First, let's look at two of the most common memes about small-town policing.

 1. Nothing much happens in small towns requiring law enforcement. This is true.

 2. Local police can cover their costs by writing citations. This is false, as I will point out shortly.

I went to the Wisconsin Department of Revenue website and looked at the report on County and Municipal for 2012, the most recent one available.  I picked out four municipalities at random for my illustration.

 City of Antigo. Population 8,141. Total tax levy, $3,371,000. Total police budget, $1,684,000. Amount received through fines and forfeitures, $36,000.

 City of Merrill. Population 9,618. Total tax levy, $4,876,000. Total police budget ,$2,430,000. Amount received through fines and forfeitures, $127,000.

 City of Niagara. Population 1,617. Total tax levy, $751,000. Total police budget, $392,000. Amount received through fines and forfeitures, $11,900.

  Village of Blue Mounds population 863. Total tax levy, $278,000. Total police budget, $161,000. Amount received through fines and forfeitures, $31,000.

 I used the levy instead of the total budget because police budgets, unlike other portions of the budget, such as roads and streets, do not receive any categorical state aids to serve as an offset. Also, one should take into account the costs of operating a local municipal court to administer the citations.

 You can quickly see the breakdown. Police costs take up roughly half of the tax levy. I wonder what would happen if a local candidate for office said he or she could find a way to cut their constituents tax bill in half. Police departments are expensive. You have to cover the clock seven days a week, they love their gadgets and pension payments are considerably higher than they are for other public employees.

 There are alternatives to full-time police departments. Some communities who need to feel the presence of an officer have entered into contracts with their sheriff's departments to station one in town. Those who have parking problems (the biggest headache for many towns, especially those in tourist areas) remedy the problem with a parking enforcement officer. Same is true of dog calls, hiring an animal control officer.

Another alternative is consolidation. I live in the Fox Valley and within a four-mile radius of my house there are seven police agencies. Some years ago Fox Valley Metro was formed with the marriage of Kimberly and Little Chute. The tiny enclave of Combined Locks was invited in but decided to buy its own department out of some misplaced municipal pride. Eventually the costs buried their small budget and they opted into the Metro department.

 Small town police departments eventually fall into a familiar pattern. Ticketing locals for traffic violations proves to be impolitic, hence the standard speed trap on the outskirts of town where you can write up people from out of town and show you are doing your job.

 On a recent trip to Milwaukee down U.S. 41 I passed near Slinger and there in the median was a Slinger squad running radar on the highway. Apparently a chunk of the highway lies within the village limits. (Village of Slinger, population 5,113. Total tax levy $2,234,000. Total police budget $1,183,000. Amount received through fines and forfeitures, $109,000.)

 That pretty much says it all.




September 10, 2014 - 11:33am