Wisconsin State Capitol

Three weeks ago state Rep. Alex Dallman, R-Green Lake, took issue with an editorial I wrote objecting to his trumpeting a bill the Wisconsin Assembly passed that would withhold shared revenue from municipalities proportionally to the degree to which they cut police funding from their departments.

Ripon’s state Assembly representative argued that those cities defunding police while Americans shoot themselves in record numbers probably don’t need as many state dollars to serve and protect their communities.

I countered that police budgeting decisions are better left to city councils than state legislators in Madison.

Dallman called me to share some concerns.

1. Although I noted in a caption that the bill pertains only to communities with more than 30 officers (i.e. not to Ripon or to any other municipalities in Wisconsin’s 41st Assembly District), Dallman noted that the department size should have been included within the body of the editorial.

My response: He’s right; that distinction deserved to be in the editorial itself, not in a sentence below an accompanying photo.

2. While I contended that the Legislature should “stay in its lane,” “stick to its knitting” and follow the conservative principle of abstaining from government overreach, Dallman contended that because municipalities are “creatures of the state,” legislators should have a say, when necessary, in how cities are operated and funded.

My response: He’s right again. Nowhere in the U.S. Constitution does the word “city” appear. This has caused courts since the late 1800s to regard municipalities as “creatures of the state,” thereby granting those states the authority to get involved, when they deem necessary, in local governmental affairs.

3. Dallman stated that to assure public safety, legislators have an obligation to exercise oversight over cities such as Milwaukee that try to address greater crime with fewer officers.

My response: This is where he and I part company, at least somewhat. Though our conversation justified for me the scope of his responsibility, only a few radicals have called for police departments to be abolished. I don’t think I’m misrepresenting Dallman when I suggest that he and I deem that notion as asinine.

More commonly, activists have called for:

a. Reallocating some public-safety dollars toward social services to address the mental-health needs of asocial citizens;

b. Putting more money into use-of-force training;

c. Shifting some funds into crime-prevention programs.

Obviously any strategies to combat crime and/or improve police procedures must be customized to the unique challenges different communities face. And who better to gauge opportunities for improvement than local leaders, on the ground, who live and work amid the problems the public hires them to address?

While some Milwaukee activists have been working to divest dollars from policing for investment into community programs, earlier this year the city’s Common Council approved a temporary federal grant program to add more officers to a force funded by a budget that has called for 120 fewer officers through attrition.

This comes at a time when 61% of Milwaukee residents give their police department a rating of fair or poor, according to results last month from a Suffolk University/USA Today Network poll.

That poll also shows citizens oppose the “defund the police” slogan some in the Black Lives Matter movement have chanted, but most agree that some funds for police be diverted for mental health and other social services.

Budgetary decisions should remain the purview of those more in the know about their urban ecosystem.

Dallman counters that because he represents taxpayers all over the state, he and other legislators absolutely have a voice in reducing funding for communities seemingly willing to diminish the dollars they allocate for police.

He also notes that, for example, Green Lake deputies were dispatched to southern Wisconsin in August 2020 to deal with civil unrest after a Kenosha Police officer was captured on camera shooting a man in the back seven times. Too small to handle the riots, Kenosha law enforcement required outstate reinforcements.

Whichever side you favor, the question underlying this discussion is whether the spike in the nation’s homicide rate (the overall crime rate is down, violent crime is slightly higher but murders are through the roof) is due to cities cutting if not gutting their police departments. The answer may, in part, be in the affirmative, but with other contributing factors as well.

Reasons for the rising rate of crime in America may include:

1. Officers’ fear of being sued, disciplined or prosecuted.

2. More officers retire as their profession has been vilified.

3. Gun sales escalated during the pandemic, and not just from people adding to their stockpile. Many became first-time gun owners.

4. Homicides are spiking in the very neighborhoods where gun violence already is most concentrated.

While some politicians are using rising murder rates in their rhetoric to bash Democrat mayors, those alleging systemic racism and defund-the-police extremists, little data exists to explain how different factors substantially affect American cities’ widespread homicide pandemic.

“No single narrative can ever explain the dynamics of violence in a single city, much less across an entire country,” according to an article in the June 30, 2021 edition of The Guardian. “According to FBI data, many American homicide victims know their killers. National crime data is usually just the sum of a range of contradictory, extremely local crime trends.”

And that’s why the Legislature should refrain from politicizing the issue, showing Milwaukee and other Wisconsin cities not the back of its hand but offering a hand up.

— Tim Lyke

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