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By Dave Umhoefer June 8, 2011

Assaults on police have surged, but mostly in Milwaukee County

Punched, kicked, pushed, stabbed, shot.

Lobbying against state cuts that could trim local law enforcement funding, the Wisconsin Professional Police Association recently trumpeted a disturbing trend: Assaults against officers in the state have more than doubled in the last five years.

"1,588 Wisconsin officers were assaulted in 2010. Part of a growing trend, the 2010 statistics represent an astonishing increase of 224 percent over the 492 assaults recorded in 2005," Jim Palmer, executive director of the group, said in a news release issued May 31, 2011.

"These disturbing figures demonstrate that our state’s law enforcement community is facing a crisis caused by the state’s repeated cuts to the funding it provides to cities to pay for police services."

The connection between assaults and budget cuts is Palmer’s opinion -- a linkage even he told us is difficult to directly establish. But what about the numbers themselves?

Has there really been a big spike in assaults on police, even as major crime has dropped? We can check that -- and try to get at what lies behind the numbers.

Before we jump in, we should note that assaults are broadly defined. A few  are deadly, and draw the most attention, but about one in five incidents results in injury to an officer. Most involve fists and feet rather than weapons.

Palmer pointed us to state Office of Justice Assistance data that is based on local crime statistics reported to the FBI.

The overall increase cited is on target (though, for the record, the state report we say showed 490 assaults in 2005, not 492). The 224 percent increase moved the state from way below average to average in number of assaults per officer.

But we obtained the county-by-county reports and drilled down.

More than half of Wisconsin’s counties actually reported fewer assaults in 2010 than in 2005, we found. And outside Milwaukee County, assaults were up only 24 percent in the period.

The Milwaukee County numbers, in contrast, were off the charts and driving the statewide increase -- a nearly fivefold increase (486 percent) in the period looked at.

To put that huge leap in focus, consider that Milwaukee County is reporting an increase of more than 1,000 assaults on officers in just six years -- from 212 incidents in 2005 to 1,243 incidents in 2010.

So, while it’s the state union citing the number to bolster its position, it’s more of a Milwaukee-only trend. The association does not represent Milwaukee cops; the separate Milwaukee Police Association does that.

Is it a one-year blip -- or a true "trend," as Palmer said?

The numbers show it has been a steady climb up, year by year, since 2005. In fact, they have been heading up gradually since the mid-1990s.

Palmer called the increase "astonishing." Nationally, we found, the number basically has been flat for at least a decade.

Does the huge jump in assaults of officers reflect a growing number of incidents or some change in the way assaults are accounted for -- or a combination of both?

Palmer of the WPPA doesn’t have an answer. He said the state should launch a study of what’s behind the increase.

Milwaukee County District Attorney John Chisholm thinks the trend is real. Criminals are more aggressive, less likely to surrender and are under less intense scrutiny because of cutbacks in federal grants for special crime-fighting efforts, he said.

Milwaukee Police Chief Edward Flynn said lax treatment of young offenders and weak penalties for illegally carrying weapons could explain the trend.

"We have a critical mass of undeterred juvenile offenders entering the adult system," Flynn said, "and now they are carrying firearms because they have learned there is not a great risk of serious sanction."

Milwaukee Police Association President Mike Crivello says manpower cuts have weakened the show of force necessary to discourage attacks on officers.

Tami Jackson, spokeswoman for the state office that collects the data, said no change in reporting method was apparent in the Milwaukee figures.

Let’s return to the statement and the bottom line:

Lobbying to save funding for law enforcement in communities across the state, the Wisconsin Professional Police Association highlighted an upward surge (224 percent) in reported assaults against law enforcement officers since 2005. The statistics are on point, but while framing it as a statewide problem, the group didn’t note the jump is really centered in the city of Milwaukee. In many other parts of the state, assaults are down.

So, it needed some clarification. That rates a Mostly True.

Featured Fact-check

Our Sources

Wisconsin Professional Police Association, press release, May 31, 2011

Interviews with Tami Jackson, spokeswoman, state Office of Justice Assistance, June 3-7, 2011

Interview with Milwaukee Police Chief Edward Flynn, June 6, 2011

Interview with Milwaukee Police Department spokeswoman Anne E. Schwartz, June 6, 2011

Interview with Milwaukee County District Attorney John Chisholm, June 6, 2011

Interview with Wisconsin Professional Police Association Executive Director Jim Palmer, May 31, 2011

Interview with Mike Crivello, Milwaukee Police Association president, June 7, 2011

State Office of Justice Assistance, archive of crime reports, accessed June 3, 2011

FBI, archive of reports on Law Enforcement Officers Killed and Assaulted, accessed June 3, 2011

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Assaults on police have surged, but mostly in Milwaukee County

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