Long before protesters started chanting “defund the police,” Terry Witkowski was thinking about how to reduce the Milwaukee Police Department budget.
As a former civilian police administrator in a neighborhood where many officers lived, the longtime South Side alderman didn’t have anything against cops. He just wanted to save tax dollars in a department that consumes more of the city budget than any other agency.
That led Witkowski to champion the concept of community service officers (CSOs), uniformed but unarmed police employees who handle some less-dangerous tasks usually assigned to full-fledged law enforcement officers, a cause he took up in 2005. They’re paid about $40,000 a year to start, just two-thirds of a rookie cop’s $63,000. “We do a lot of police calls that you don’t need the power of arrest for,” says Witkowski, now retired.
In Milwaukee and several suburbs, CSOs deal with thefts, vandalism and fender-benders when no one has been injured and no suspects are on the scene. They also help direct traffic at crash sites in Greenfield, West Allis and Menomonee Falls, and book suspects in West Allis. They generally wear different uniforms and drive unmarked or differently marked cars than sworn officers do. City and suburban police commanders say their work helps sworn officers focus on more serious crimes. What they don’t do is anything that can escalate into a dangerous or violent situation, such as traffic stops or calls about a person in mental distress.
Now that a backlash against police brutality has triggered a nationwide debate on law enforcement funding and staffing – at the same time Milwaukee faces growing budgetary pressures – Mayor Tom Barrett and aldermen are considering whether to expand the use of CSOs. Barrett is discussing that question with Interim Police Chief Michael Brunson and the Fire and Police Commission as part of a broader look at reshaping police services, mayoral spokeswoman Jodie Tabak says.
“They can be part of the solution,” says Common Council President Cavalier Johnson, who would like to see Milwaukee’s CSOs handling community outreach duties and directing traffic.
“There’s definitely a role for them,” along with other moves, such as improving mental health services, Ald. Milele Coggs says of CSOs.
But Milwaukee’s history with CSOs shows how difficult it is to change the Police Department.
A 1967 presidential commission recommended creating CSOs in response to the unrest of the 1960s. By 2006, when Witkowski led a Milwaukee task force to study CSOs, they were working in many communities, including Minneapolis, Oshkosh, West Bend and Menomonee Falls, where they are called police aides.
At the task force’s recommendation, Milwaukee’s 2007 budget authorized up to 15 CSOs. But then-Police Chief Nan Hegerty refused to implement the program, current and former aldermen say. Unlike other agency heads, the police chief has broad power over how to spend city money, under a state law meant to shield law enforcement from politics.
Witkowski says Hegerty was part of a department tradition that resists shifting duties from sworn officers to civilians, going back to Chief Harold Breier’s battle against parking checkers in the 1970s and early ’80s. Witkowski and current aldermen say former chiefs wanted the flexibility to use officers anywhere and argued uniformed civilians would be at risk from armed criminals who mistook them for sworn officers.
Steven Brandl, a UW-Milwaukee criminal justice professor, says danger is a valid reason to limit CSOs in major cities, but police can still use them “to do more with less” money.
Hegerty’s successor, Ed Flynn, finally agreed to establish CSOs in 2016 – reluctantly, aldermen say – and recently departed Chief Alfonso Morales was even less supportive.
While CSO numbers have fluctuated as some have left or become sworn officers, the department has never filled all 25 authorized positions. Ald. Scott Spiker, Witkowski’s successor, persuaded the council to block an attempt by Barrett and Morales to chop the CSO ranks to seven for this year, but Spiker failed in a bid to expand the program.
Facing Barrett’s recommendation to cut 120 sworn officers for 2021, MPD Inspector Nicole Waldner says police leaders will consider CSO expansion “realistically,” adding, “We are not going to turn down any opportunity we have to get law enforcement on the street.”
If the department again resists, however, Ald. Nik Kovac warns aldermen could ask the Fire and Police Commission to order the chief to accept CSOs, or even move them into a separate agency and let civilian dispatchers decide whether to send police or CSOs to incidents.
“When you bang your head into a brick wall long enough, you start to wonder if there’s an edge to the wall you can walk around,” Kovac says.