Police use of force rare here

What happened in Kenosha is an anomaly, defying the critics' charge that police violence is systemic


The hardscrabble neighborhood where Jacob Blake was shot – a mix of shabby apartment buildings and the occasional pristinely kept home not far from boarded-up stores – looks like hundreds of other places in Wisconsin and the rest of America.

There is a presumption that what happened there after Kenosha police were called to the shooting scene happens everywhere else, too.

“I definitely think it is prevalent elsewhere,” a young woman sitting outside a home nearby said. “It happens all around the world. It happened here. It could happen down on the next block.”

There were “a lot of opportunities” to de-escalate before a police officer had to fire seven shots, said the woman who wanted to be identified only as Kris. “Like if you were a cop, you could have stopped it a different way.”

Questions about better de-escalation by police will go on for months, maybe years (see sidebar). Questions about the prevalence of use of force by officers are more easily answered. 

Force is used by police in Wisconsin’s two largest cities – Madison and Milwaukee – in roughly only one of every 29 or 30 arrests, just over 3%, according to a recent Badger Institute policy brief, “Police Use of Force – How Common Is It?”

No systemic evidence

The vast majority of use of force incidents in Milwaukee, Madison and Green Bay include only bodily force, not the use of a Taser or gun or baton.

So-called officer-involved shootings like the Kenosha incident are rare anywhere. There were 32 officer-involved shootings, 18 of which were fatal, from among the nearly 236,000 arrests in 2019 in all of Wisconsin, according to the Wisconsin Professional Police Association (WPPA). The year before, with over a quarter of a million arrests statewide, there were 25 officer-involved shootings, 12 of them fatal.

Most use of force by police does not involve any weapon at all, the Institute found. More than 70% of police incidents in Milwaukee and Madison involve bodily force. Green Bay defines and reports on use of force differently, but the types of force and frequency during arrest percentages appear to be similar there, as well.

Use of force is most likely to occur during an arrest, the Badger Institute analysis shows. Arrests, however, are only a small subset of all interactions.

“There are hundreds of thousands of contacts between police officers and citizens in a year, from traffic stops to conversations, and the vast majority do not result in a use of force,” said Green Bay Police Chief Andrew Smith. “I personally have dozens of contacts a day with people, it’s hard to quantify it.” Use of force is infrequent enough that Smith says he is aware of every incident.

“I personally receive a notification, an email on my phone whenever a use of force occurs, day or night,” said Smith. “I know what happened, what the circumstance are and can follow up.”

The Institute did not analyze the propriety or justification for using force, which would have required an examination of hundreds of arrests, often with incomplete reports, and drawing inherently subjective conclusions.

A lack of standards and legal requirements for reporting use-of-force incidents make it difficult to know what many departments in the state are doing, and whether officers are being held accountable for unjustified use of force. It is impossible to compare some departments of similar size and similar levels of crime to determine which are outliers deserving closer scrutiny.

Standardized annual use-of-force incident reports from law enforcement agencies are needed, the Badger Institute has concluded. Gov. Tony Evers and State Sen. Van Wanggaard have offered legislative proposals requiring police departments to report all officer-involved shootings and incidents in which a civilian suffers great bodily harm.

The legislation should be amended to require departments to agree on a definition of use of force and report on those incidents uniformly and annually.

Disturbing trend in Milwaukee 

A closer look at the numbers by the Institute revealed that some officers in Milwaukee have used force much more frequently than their fellow officers. In 2018, when more than two-thirds of the 1,900 officers never used any type of force and over 86% never used it more than once, one officer was involved in 24 incidents. Another 39 officers used force five or more times. And fourteen percent of all officers used force more than once in 2018.

The statistics suggest a department rarely using force, particularly in low-crime neighborhoods. In largely impoverished aldermanic districts with much more crime and a greater number of arrests, however, officers use force more than seven times as often as those in districts surrounded by more affluent suburbs.

The disparity makes some sense, but it doesn’t explain why some officers are so far outside the norm or why a small percentage use force much more frequently than fellow officers working the same districts.

It is those officers using force in those povertystricken areas whose actions prompt protestors and other critics to claim the violence is systemic to all police.

“While we do not believe there are systemic problems with the way our officers are doing their jobs, we do believe that we can always improve and that better outcomes – especially with use of force considerations - should always be sought,” Madison Assistant Chief of Police John Peterson said.

Patrick Hughes is a Badger Institute corrections consultant. Mike Nichols is the president of the Badger Institute. Permission to reprint is granted as long as the author and Badger Institute are properly cited.

Related story: Q&A with Kevin McMahill