By PETER CAMERON
The Badger Project
Law enforcement officers in Wisconsin kill people at among the lower per capita rates in the country. But some agencies, including the sheriff’s departments in Marinette and Walworth counties, have killed people at much higher rates since 2013.
“Police shootings — especially fatal ones — are statistically rare events,” Meghan Stroshine, an associate professor of criminology and law studies at Marquette University who studies law enforcement and use of force, wrote in an email.
Since 2013, law enforcement officers in Wisconsin have killed at least 149 people. Mapping Police Violence, which tracks killings by police based on reports in the news media, lists 148 killings, not counting a fatal police shooting in Appleton on Aug. 12. The project began collecting the data in 2013.
The FBI also maintains a national database of use-of-force incidents by law enforcement, but reporting is not mandatory, so many agencies do not report and the data are incomplete, Stroshine said.
Among people killed by police in Wisconsin, about 27% were Black, although Black residents make up just 6.2% of Wisconsin’s population, according to data Mapping Police Violence prepared for The Badger Project. All but four of the 149 killed were men.
Most have been deemed justified by an outside agency or a district attorney, according to the cases gathered by Mapping Police Violence. Law enforcement said the victims were armed in more than 75% of the deaths.
Wisconsin below national average
Nationally, law enforcement killed about 3.3 people for every million per year from 2013 through 2021, according to Mapping Police Violence. The annual average of police killings in Wisconsin in the same time frame is about 2.7 per million inhabitants, putting the state 36th out of the 50 states.
Nationally, police kill about 1,100 people per year, mostly from shootings, according to the Mapping Police Violence and a similar database maintained by The Washington Post.
Jim Palmer, head of the Wisconsin Police Professional Association, the largest police union in the state, said he was not surprised Wisconsin is in the bottom third of per capita killings by police.
“The training that officers receive in Wisconsin is ahead of our peers nationally,” he said.
Palmer pointed to the scenario-based training all law enforcement cadets now receive at the academy. In 2016, the state increased the amount of this training from at least 60 hours to approximately 110 hours, said Stephanie Pederson, an educational consultant at the state Department of Justice.
Palmer also noted that in 2014, Wisconsin became the first state in the country to mandate that an outside law enforcement agency conduct investigations of officer-related deaths. The bill had been pushed by Michael Bell Sr., whose namesake son was killed by Kenosha Police during a traffic stop in 2004.
And since 2020, the Wisconsin Department of Justice has collected data on use of force incidents from law enforcement agencies and recently launched a database for public use.
Why police kill, and why rates differ
There are “only two situations where deadly force is acceptable or allowable,” said Christopher Herrmann, an assistant professor of law and police science at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice. “If the officer feels like their life, or someone else’s life, is threatened.”
Fatal shootings by law enforcement tend to have several things in common, Stroshine said. The majority involve male victims who are armed and have a drug addiction or a mental health issue, she said.
And use of force policies can differ greatly across agencies, Stroshine noted.
Patrick Solar, an associate professor of criminal justice at the University of Wisconsin-Platteville and a former police chief, said some law enforcement agencies focus more on law and order, while others are more concerned with reducing police violence.
He said that the question in every incident is, were there alternatives that could have been exercised by the officer to avoid having to take a life?
“Some officers are not aware of those alternatives,” he said. “It’s not a part of their training, it’s not a part of their culture.”
Higher numbers at some agencies
Unsurprisingly, the three biggest cities in Wisconsin have seen the most killings by law enforcement, according to Mapping Police Violence.
Milwaukee Police have killed 23 people since 2013. Madison Police have killed seven people in the same time frame, while Green Bay Police have killed six.
Some cases involve incidents in which there is little question about the need for use of force. Bruce Pofahl, one of the people killed in 2021 by Green Bay Police, had just shot three people, killing two of them, at a hotel connected to the Oneida Casino.
In a 2019 case, Javier Francisco Garcia-Mendez died after Green Bay Police tasered and handcuffed him following reports that he was pounding on doors and chasing people. He was unarmed, but had bitten a woman, police said.
New approaches eyed to lower deaths
Because mental health disorders can be a large part of modern policing, and often an issue in police killings, some local governments and law enforcement agencies across Wisconsin are trying different strategies to lower the chance of a fatal encounter.
The city of Madison and its police department have been leaders in this area, experts say. The police department has deployed mental health workers since 2004, a practice other agencies have followed. The city also pioneered the use of teams of EMTs and mental health professionals to take some pressure off police as well as those in need.
And in September, Milwaukee County will open a mental health emergency center in the city’s downtown where law enforcement police can bring people in crisis, said Edward Fallone, a Marquette law professor who chairs the citizen board of the Milwaukee Police and Fire Commission.
Some experts credit virtual reality scenario-based training with helping officers make good decisions in tight situations.
In addition to their training at the academy, officers in Wisconsin must complete 24 hours of continuing education annually, Pederson said. But they can always do more. Waukesha police officers complete at least 60 hours annually on a variety of topics, Baumann said.
Said Solar, the UW-Platteville professor, “The fact is the more of that kind of training you get, the less reactionary you’re going to be, the less fearful you’re going to be and the more confident you’re going to be.”
Reporting this story for Wisconsin Watch was Peter Cameron, managing editor of The Badger Project, a nonpartisan journalism nonprofit based in Madison. The nonprofit Wisconsin Watch (wisconsinwatch.org) collaborates with Wisconsin Public Radio, PBS Wisconsin, other news media and the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Journalism and Mass Communication. All works created, published, posted or disseminated by Wisconsin Watch do not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of UW-Madison or any of its affiliates.