Victoria Dawson wanted to be a police officer since seventh grade.
She got her degree in criminology from UW-Whitewater in 2017.
Now, she’s been hired by Janesville. Like many departments, Janesville will pay her wages as she goes through the 17 weeks of police academy at Blackhawk Technical College and pay her $5,000 tuition, too.
Starting wages locally range from the low $40,000s to mid-$50,000s.
Benefits are not bad when compared to some other jobs, although they’re not as good as they were before Wisconsin’s 2011 law known as Act 10 cut into them, and raises are not what they used to be, said Chief Deputy Barb Tillman of the Rock County Sheriff's Office.
Still, the numbers of applicants for local police jobs in recent years reflect the national trend: They’re down by a lot.
New Rock County Sheriff Troy Knudson faced a wave of retirements as he took office in January. He recently told WCLO Radio that the first time the sheriff's office posted for new recruits, it got eight or nine applicants.
In the past, having 100 to 200 applicants was common, Knudson said.
Elkhorn Police Chief Joel Christensen remembers 125 applicants in 2014-15. A recent posting netted his department 52 applicants.
Similar stories were heard from most chiefs interviewed.
“The smaller numbers don’t concern me terribly because we want just a few of the very best, and most of those who applied wouldn’t have made the cut anyway,” said Janesville Police Chief Dave Moore. “We continue to get good quality people.”
Officials said it’s hard to know what is going on in the heads of young people who don’t apply, but they’ve heard one of the biggest impediments is that they’re now recruiting from the millennial generation.
Millennials are more interested in quality of life than past generations, it is said, and that can make police work seem less attractive.
Weekend shifts are common, and nearly all young recruits spend years working nights before they get enough seniority to qualify for the day shift.
“Millennials appear to have returned to traditional family values, and thus, cherish time away from work,” according to Police Chief Magazine.
Mark Brown, a retired Madison police officer and program administrator for Blackhawk Tech’s police academy, said he has heard from police chiefs and sheriffs that recruits don’t want to work holidays or weekends.
The problem can lead to recruits leaving the profession, which sharpens the competition as law enforcement agencies scramble to fill vacancies, Brown said.
“We’re not only competing for candidates with other police agencies, we’re also competing with the private sector, which sometimes has the ability to offer a higher wage and more competitive schedule,” Tillman said.
“If they’re expecting a Monday-through-Friday job, they’re in the wrong profession,” Moore said, acknowledging that police schedules are tough on families and the officers.
Beloit Police Chief David Zibolski said his department has a solution: 10-hour shifts.
Beloit devised a system of five overlapping shifts. Officers still work 40-hour weeks, but they get every other weekend off, Zibolski said.
They also assigned more cops for times when the volume of calls is highest. That greatly reduced the need to call in officers during crises, Zibolski said.
The schedule reduced the need for overtime for officers to train together. In the first nine months, Beloit saved more than $400,000 on overtime, Zibolski said.
Zibolski said he also instituted a new culture for officers since he took over the chief job four years ago. The focus is on their role as guardians.
New recruits like the schedule and other changes so much that they tell their friends to apply to Beloit, Zibolski said.
The result has been easier recruitment, including of black people and other minorities, he said.
Recruiting minority officers has been a challenge for many local agencies.
Earlier generations were more interested in maximizing pay, so they set up work schedules that would produce overtime, Zibolski said.
Zibolski gives a lot of credit to the officers’ union for agreeing to the schedule change and for a change in the last contract to front-load the salary schedule so young officers see pay hikes early. More traditional schedules emphasized pay hikes at year 20 or 25, he said.
Officers make about $52,000 right out of the academy, Zibolski said.
Well-publicized incidents around the country, such as the shooting of a black man in Ferguson, Missouri, in 2014, often are pointed to as the reason fewer go into police work.
There’s something to that, said sociologist Charles Westerberg of Beloit College.
Westerberg has been teaching criminology for 20 years, and he has never seen negative attitudes toward police like those held by today’s students.
He tries to give an evenhanded presentation on police, but students don’t want to hear it, Westerberg said.
“They have it in their minds the police exist to marginalize people, to use their power in racist and classist sorts of ways,” he said.
Students know of the controversial police shootings and point to statistics showing police detain people of color and poor people well out of proportion to their numbers in the population, Westerberg said.
“And they’re not wrong. There is an imbalance,” he said. “But they don’t acknowledge the number of (police-citizen interactions) that don’t end in one of these negative encounters.”
Westerberg said a lot of older studies found one of the chief reasons people became police officers in past is they believed they would be respected, important members of society.
“That’s what’s come under sort of attack with a lot of these high-profile cases,” he said.
Beloit College sociology students are not a good representation of the population, however.
Whitewater Police Chief Aaron Raap, a veteran of the Milwaukee Police Department, said if he could change one thing to improve recruiting, it would be the way news media cover the high-profile cases.
The incidents are reported incompletely in the beginning. Officers are vilified, as Raap sees it, and there’s no waiting until all the facts are known.
“We have bad apples like every other walk of life, but painting everybody with the broad brush of being a bad cop is just wrong,” Raap said.
“There are so many rewarding experiences officers encounter every day, in big cities and small cities alike,” he said.
Police work always has been dangerous and stressful, leading to high turnover, Westerberg said.
That point was driven home during a recent active-shooter training for the Blackhawk Tech academy students. Janesville police Sgt. Rob Perkins was critiquing students’ efforts to find a shooter in the rooms and corridors of the Mercyhealth training center in Janesville.
Perkins noted students who hesitated when they came under fire from guns that fired plastic pellets. But, of course, they were training for the day they might face real gunfire.
The correct tactic is to push forward, Perkins said.
“We may take rounds. It’s a pill we’re going to have to take,” he told them.
“You do what you’ve got to do. Risk a lot to save a lot,” said BTC student Ashley Janes, when asked about the possibility she might have to take a life someday.
Janes, of Janesville, is a Walworth County Sheriff’s Office recruit.
“They see what they see on TV and think that it’s all glamour and glitz, and in reality, like I tell these academy students, an eight-hour shift can be seven hours and 59 minutes of sheer boredom and one minute of sheer excitement,” Brown said. “It’s not what you see on TV. It’s a lot of dealing with people and being a mediator and a social worker.”
But Brown said he talks to high school students about policing. He asks them, “How many of your parents will retire at age 50 with a full pension, and how many employers will pay tuition so they can complete a bachelor’s degree?"
Recruit Dawson said she stopped talking to people about her career goal because of negative feedback.
Mostly, it was about being a woman in a male-dominated profession. People would tell her they couldn’t see her doing that, she said.
That was one of the reasons she didn’t apply for police jobs right out of college. Doubts crept in. But she still felt the calling.
“It was still something I wanted to do, so I pursued it—hard-headed,” she said.
“Nothing else was fun, so this is fun, and I like it, and I can definitely do this.”
What does it take to be a cop?
“My best officers are people of compassion and people of character,” said Janesville Police Chief Dave Moore.
“We’re not necessarily concerned with their ability to run or shoot or drive a car fast. We can train all of those skills," Moore said. "But if I have somebody who cares about others and has a sound ethical background, those tend to be my best police officers.”
The ability to communicate is also vital, Moore said.
“This job is talking. It’s communication,” agreed Mark Brown of Blackhawk Tech’s police academy.
Brown said young people spend too much time on their smartphones and don’t like communicating face-to-face, so he requires academy students to give up their phones during the school day.
“The first week, it’s like you took the eyeballs out of their heads,” Brown said. “But then you talk to them a little bit further on, they start talking to people and feel more comfortable talking.”
Officials said one of policing's big draws is that it appeals to young people’s desire to improve their world.
“We're looking for somebody who is seeking to serve the public,” said Chief Deputy Barb Tillman of the Rock County Sheriff’s Office. “We’re centered around customer service. We want employees who realize our product is public safety.”
“It’s difficult work, but it’s very rewarding work,” Tillman said. “One of your actions can be a positive influence in someone’s life. I tell them, 'If you want to be a change agent, get into law enforcement. Not every day is going to be an easy day … but you’re going to be a champion for your community.'”
“It’s still a very noble profession with excellent wages and benefits,” said Elkhorn Police Chief Joel Christensen. “So I think for people to just dismiss it, for whatever reason, is rather shortsighted. There are not many professions where you can give back to the community like you can in law enforcement.”