In recent years, law enforcement has become a hot topic across the country, from accusations of racism to the proliferation of the Blue Lives Matter movement. But police departments in Wisconsin face a greater problem, according to department heads and city administrators: staff shortages.
Mauston mayor Brian McGuire said the issue of staff shortages is a recent development. At the beginning of his 16-year tenure as mayor, a job opening in the Mauston PD was likely to see up to 30 well-qualified applicants.
“When we have openings now, we’ll be lucky if we get five applicants,” McGuire said. “And of the five applicants… I think two of them were probably qualified. And that’s been the story trying to replace positions that have opened up or that have expanded.”
The Mauston police added a new staff member for the 2019 fiscal year for the first time since 2015. It had been decades since Mauston expanded its full-time police force. According to McGuire, the department had wanted to add another officer for some time , but the money didn’t become available until late 2018.
Much of the rationale behind the expansion was to lighten the load on the existing officers. McGuire said much of the staff would work up to 60 hours per week, overtaxing the department and leaving officers overtired and unable to maintain a high level of operation.
“Part of it was overtime hours, extra hours,” McGuire said. “It was something we’ve been planning for quite a long time, but we had to wait until the budget put us in a position where we could afford to do that.”
Mauston’s department operates in a unique fashion; rather than employing a chief and a lieutenant, they have a chief and two sergeants under him. Those two sergeants split the work of the lieutenant. McGuire said the council chose this path rather than the department’s requested lieutenant hire so one sergeant could always be available to go out on the road.
McGuire and the Mauston city council hoped the new sergeant position would alleviate the stress on the salaried members of the force, each of whom was working up to 20 hours of overtime per week.
“In our opinion, it’s not safe to overworking and putting people out in that kind of position when they’re tired,” McGuire said. “We want them at their best.”
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According to Dells police chief Jody Ward, a big part of the problem in finding and retaining quality employees is the lack of available full-time positions. Ward requested an additional full-time officer for the Dells PD in the 2020 budget, saying at an October 2019 budget meeting that any part-time employee the department wanted to hang on to would be lost to another department if they couldn’t get full-time pay in the Dells
“The problem is now, any part-timer worth their weight, they’re going to get a full-time job very quickly,” Ward said. “Because right now, there is a real epidemic of lack of police. Nationwide. It’s just really rough.”
The Dells police department maintains a consistent presence at local police academies, which helps Ward and his staff bring in part-time staff when they graduate. However, according to Ward, these relationships don’t always produce long-term staff members, since these graduates will take available full-time positions elsewhere once their initial commitment in the Dells is complete.
Ward’s department also shares the same concerns about overtime with the Mauston police department, allotting a significant portion of their budget to paying officers working a case past their 40 hours per week. Ward said during the budget negotiation process that another full-time officer would allow him to cut the overtime budget in half, since he could more easily distribute his case load among a larger staff.
However, the Dells finance committee did not put Ward’s request in the 2020 budget, citing financial concerns.
Not all police departments in the area are expanding their staff. According to lieutenant Andrew Stelter of the Reedsburg police department, his staff is currently hiring another officer, but it’s to fill an existing position: the police chief.
The previous chief became an administrator for Reedsburg, and the department is currently in search of a replacement. According to Stelter, the department has not truly expanded in several years, far enough back that Stelter, a 20-year department veteran, cannot recall the last time Reedsburg brought on an additional officer.
“I’d have to look back in time on that one,” Stelter said. “In the past we’ve added officers, but I don’t know the timeframe of when we changed from what we were to what we are now.”
Although Reedsburg has not added an officer recently, Stelter feels that additional staffing would lead to higher-quality police work. In his experience, a larger police force leads to a more productive department that can better serve the community.
“I think obviously, more staffing is going to allow us to get more stuff done,” Stelter said. “That’s kind of why this person is coming on board.”