Editorial: Data help decide police priorities

The Wisconsin Professional Police Association wanted to know what people thought about public safety, so it did something interesting: It asked. The organization, which represents police across the state, recently commissioned a statewide poll conducted by the St. Norbert College Strategic Research Institute.

The Daily Herald Media Editorial Board recently met with WPPA Executive Director Jim Palmer to discuss the results. One discovery: Wisconsin is narrowly divided between wanting stricter gun laws and wanting to keep the rules we have — 47 percent want stricter laws; 43 percent want them kept the same. (The poll did not test specific gun control policies.) The respondents also value law enforcement (no surprise) and might be somewhat skeptical about consolidation of government services, with only 28 percent of the public calling that a top priority.

It’s always interesting to ask members of the public how they see things, and we appreciate that the WPPA would go to the trouble. It’s too common for professional organizations to make assumptions about how people feel without actually investigating.

Here are a few points that stood out to us:

Consolidation still holds promise. The data showing that the public isn’t keen on merging police departments are not surprising. People are protective of their police services, and in some communities, it can be a key part of people’s sense of identity.

But this survey result is far from a reason not to seek ways to collaborate, partner and even merge with other departments. In addition to 28 percent who called it a top priority, 48 percent of respondents said it was a moderate priority. Only 20 percent called consolidation a low priority.

Local history shows that people quickly come to identify a merged police department as their own, too. People in Weston or Schofield today clearly identify the Everest Metro Police Department as their community’s force. It’s probably best not to read too much into this particular data point, in other words. Given the facts, the public will be capable of warming up to a merger if one makes sense.

Community policing costs money. Community policing, a system by which specific officers are assigned to neighborhoods and become known there by walking a beat and being part of the community, is an increasingly popular model for dealing with crime in dense areas. Some have suggested that it could be a key part of combating blight and crime in central Wausau. The problem, Palmer said, is one of money.

“You need to have the staff to do (community policing),” he said. In most departments, “officers need to cover more ground in a shorter period of time, and that requires being in a car.”

New drunken driving laws also can be expensive. As a representative of law enforcement interests, Palmer was quite hesitant to support the change in Wisconsin of first-offense drunken driving to a crime, on the grounds that it would be a costly addition for police without a corresponding increase in resources. As this legislative proposal moves forward, this will be an area to watch. Will lawmakers be willing to put their money where their mouths are?


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