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By Dave Umhoefer June 3, 2012

Tom Barrett says Gov. Scott Walker's budget made "draconian" public safety cuts

With the endorsement from a national police union as the backdrop, Democratic recall challenger Tom Barrett attacked Republican Gov. Scott Walker as a threat to officers and public safety.

"Scott Walker is quick to attend ceremonies honoring officers that have fallen in the line of duty, but he has eliminated their ability to bargain over their health insurance and his draconian cuts only place officers at greater risk of harm," Barrett said May 24, 2012, on his website after the National Association of Police Organizations’ endorsement.

One of the complaints about Walker’s collective bargaining changes was that he exempted police officers. Did he then quietly turn around and put them at greater risk?

When asked to back up the claim, Barrett’s campaign staff pointed to three things:

1. State statistics showing a drop in sworn police personnel between 2010 and 2011.

2. The $76 million in cuts Walker’s 2011-13 budget made in state aid to local municipal governments. Known as "shared revenue," it is general aid that can go for various programs, including police and fire.

3. A 2011 Republican move, backed by Walker, that eliminated a 2009 provision that heavily discouraged municipalities from cutting their police and fire budgets. That provision had been sought by police chiefs and police unions.

First the sworn-officer statistics.

They show a 1.7 percent drop in sworn police personnel between 2010 and 2011. That’s a drop of 225 from 13,046 officers at the hundreds of law enforcement agencies around the state.

Not insignificant, but hardly "draconian."

In fact, the numbers cited aren’t really relevant, because the budget cuts to shared revenue didn’t hit until the 2012 budget year for local governments -- and there are no statewide staffing numbers available for 2012.

So blaming the state aid cuts for previous reductions is off, too.

Barrett’s campaign didn’t point out any community that saw a drastic drop in police and fire coverage in 2012.

Some did face cuts. In Beloit, for example, five out of 77 recently vacated patrol officer positions were eliminated, according to city officials.

They described it as a significant cut, but not dramatic.

"The sky’s not falling," said Police Chief Norm Jacobs, "but it does affect how the officers deal with problems in the neighborhoods" through preventive policing.

In Milwaukee, where Barrett oversees the police budget, the size of the force was basically unchanged for 2012. The city used Walker’s limits on collective bargaining to save millions on health insurance costs, helping balance the budget.

Doug Pettit, who is police chief in Oregon, Wis., said he’s heard about positions being frozen and furloughs, but no horror stories of dramatic police cuts. Pettit is the longtime legislative chairman of the Wisconsin Chiefs of Police Association.

He said Barrett’s remark about decreased officer safety would be true if departments put fewer officers on a shift, leaving less backup. He said that might be happening in some cities, but did not cite any.

Jim Palmer heads the Wisconsin Professional Police Association, an umbrella group of police unions.

He said he considers it drastic to cut $76 million from shared revenue because some of that money could have helped police agencies meet demand for service. That was a 9 percent cut, according to state figures, the largest in at least a decade.

But he acknowledged that layoffs of officers still were uncommon. Departments are downsizing mainly through attrition, he said.

"Police and fire are definitely the last to get cut," Palmer noted.

What about the final point cited by the Barrett campaign: Walker’s budget move to drop the "maintenance of effort" law that had shielded many police budgets from cuts in 2010 and 2011?

Pettit told us the repeal of that protection was a concern for chiefs, but he has not heard that its removal had led to inappropriate funding cuts in police operations.

Our rating

Barrett said Walker’s budget moves included "draconian" budget cuts to public safety and put officers at risk.

There are clearly some reductions in some departments, but neither Barrett nor key union and police officials point to any drastic cutbacks. There are no current statewide numbers on officer cuts, and the mayor offered no examples either. So far, it looks like local officials -- who ultimately control what to cut -- have protected police from big harm.

We rate Barrett’s statement False.

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Our Sources

Barrett for Governor website press release on endorsement, May 24, 2012

Email interview with Melanie Conklin, Barrett for Wisconsin press secretary, May 29, 2011

Phone interview, Jon Dyck, fiscal analyst, Wisconsin Legislative Fiscal Bureau, May 31-JUne 1, 2012

Email interview with Tami Jackson, public information officer, state Office of Justice Assistance, May 31, 2012

Phone interview with Doug Pettit, police chief, Oregon, Wis., May 31, 2012

Phone interview with Beloit Police Chief Norm Jacobs, June 1, 2012

Email interview with Larry Arft, Beloit city manager, May 31, 2012

Phone interview with Paul York, cit of Beloit finance director, June 1, 2012

Phone interview with Mark Nicolini, city of Milwaukee budget and management director, May 31, 2011

Phone interview with Curt Witynski, assistant director, Wisconsin League of Municipalities, May 31, 2011

Phone interview with James Palmer, executive director, Wisconsin Professional Police Association, May 31, 2012

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Tom Barrett says Gov. Scott Walker's budget made "draconian" public safety cuts

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