Number of Wisconsin wandering officers on the rise

Five employed at Shawano County Sheriff’s Office
Peter Cameron
The Badger Project

Wandering officers — police and jailers who were fired or forced out from a previous job in law enforcement — have increased in Wisconsin by more than 50% since 2021, an investigation by The Badger Project has found.

More than 300 active officers in the state were negatively separated from previous law enforcement jobs in Wisconsin, according to records obtained by The Badger Project. The number does not include wandering officers who came from other states.

The Shawano County Sheriff’s Office has five wandering officers on its force today, compared to three in 2021.

In 2021, the number of wandering officers in Wisconsin totaled fewer than 200, according to an investigation by The Badger Project.

A total of about 15,000 law enforcement officers, including those working in jails and other detention facilities, are employed in Wisconsin, according to the Wisconsin Department of Justice. Wandering officers make up about 2% of the total.

More than 1,900 officers in Wisconsin have been negatively separated — meaning they were terminated, resigned in lieu of resignation or resigned prior to completion of an internal investigation — since 2017 when the state DOJ started requiring agencies to report that statistic.

Many wandering officers are simply rookies who didn’t perform at an acceptable level during their initial training probationary period, when the bar to fire them is very low, experts say. Or they were unable to handle the pressure of working in a busy urban area and can thrive at a slower pace in a smaller town.

But for others, misconduct — including lying, public intoxication and harassment — led to them losing their law enforcement positions.

Rehiring these people can create issues. Wandering officers are more likely to get fired again or commit moral character violations compared to rookies and officers who have never been fired, research suggests.

The cop crunch

Reflecting a national trend, the number of law enforcement officers in Wisconsin continues to decline.

Last year, the number of officers policing the public and excluding those working exclusively in correctional facilities fell again to less than 13,000, according to data from the state DOJ. That’s the lowest number of patrol officers since at least 2008, when the DOJ started keeping track.

The number of Wisconsin law enforcement officers has been sinking since at least then, a “cop crunch” that puts pressure on law enforcement agencies trying to fill positions.

“Police chiefs nationwide are struggling to find quality candidates,” said Patrick Solar, an associate professor of criminal justice at UW-Platteville and a former police chief in Illinois.

“People who might have this calling are just unwilling to take the risk of entering a career field that has been so unfairly maligned. As a result, I am sure that standards are being lowered to get warm bodies in squad cars, even if those bodies would not have been considered just 10 years ago.”

Others set the reason for the shortage on the shoulders of police for creating unflattering reputations in some circles.

Whatever the reason, fewer people are going into law enforcement.

To work as a police officer in Wisconsin, a person must be at least 18 years old, have a high school diploma and earn 60 credits from an accredited institution of higher education in any field within five years of becoming a police officer, according to state rules. Many officers meet the last requirement by graduating from a law enforcement academy or earning an associate’s degree.

Those standards remain intact, said Steven Wagner, administrator of the Division of Law Enforcement Services at the Wisconsin DOJ.

Law enforcement agencies can and often do have more stringent requirements, Wagner said, noting that most require officers to be 21 years old and earn the 60 credits before starting the job.

Reasons vary

The sheriff’s departments in Waukesha and Milwaukee counties and the city of Milwaukee’s police department employ the most wandering officers in the state, an analysis by The Badger Project found.

The number of wandering officers at the Milwaukee County Sheriff’s Office has remained relatively consistent — 12 in 2021 and at least 16 now. More than half are jail officers. Several failed training programs or exams as probationary officers in previous stints with the Milwaukee County Sheriff’s Office, then studied more, reapplied after a waiting period and passed the second time, said James Burnett, a spokesman for the office.

The Waukesha County Sheriff’s Office only employed about four wandering officers in 2021, but now has at least 14.

The sheriff’s department has not reduced its hiring standards, said James Gumm, an inspector with the department. “However, we face the same employment challenges that all law enforcement agencies are facing in our current environment,” Gumm said.

Many officers on the state’s negative separation list were novices unable to complete training with a previous law enforcement agency but found success elsewhere, “which is very common in law enforcement,” Gumm said.

The Milwaukee Police Department employed one wandering officer in 2021, and now has at least 12.

By comparison, the police departments in Green Bay, Janesville and Kenosha employ no wandering officers.

Along with policing parts of their counties, often the rural ones, sheriff’s offices also staff their county jails. Sheriffs are facing a crisis hiring for those positions, some say.

They can be extra hard to fill, sheriffs say, in part because jail officers are generally lower paid than patrol deputies and the job is generally considered entry-level to the field of law enforcement.

Shawano County Sheriff George Lenzner said finding appropriate staffing is an issue, and it’s not just for deputy positions.

In addressing the April meeting of the Shawano County Public Safety Committee, he said the county may need to consider shift differential pay for dispatch and corrections staff. He said Shawano County is one of the few counties that does not offer this.

“It’s getting harder and harder to fill these spots. We’re getting less and less applications,” he said. “I think we have to keep up with the rest of the state of Wisconsin and other counties, to attract and retain these employees so they don’t leave.”

Oftentimes, an officer who loses his or her job policing the community can find a position in a correctional facility, which is essentially a demotion.

If officers keep their recertification training current, only severe misconduct — such as criminal activity — usually results in decertification and an end to their career in law enforcement, according to state rules.

In 2021, the legislature passed a bill intended to cut down on bad apples in law enforcement.

The law requires law enforcement agencies maintain a work history file for each employee and creates a procedure for law enforcement agencies, jails and juvenile detention facilities to receive and review an officer candidate’s file from previous employers.

The goal is to avoid the sealing of problem officers’ personnel files. In the past, some law enforcement officers accused of misconduct would agree to leave an agency quietly if the bosses refused to tell other agencies what led to the separation. The law aims to end that practice and improve transparency in law enforcement hiring.

The Badger Project is a nonpartisan, citizen-supported journalism nonprofit in Wisconsin.