Most approve police officers in schools after MPS removes them, WPPA poll finds

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MADISON Wis. (CBS 58) -- A majority support having police officers in schools to boost safety according to a poll conducted by the state's largest police union.

The 10th annual Wisconsin Professional Police Association poll surveyed over 1,000 and found 63% believe having a police officer in public schools, often referred to as school resource officers (SROs), increases school safety. Only 5% believed it would decrease safety and 25% say police presence wouldn't make a difference with or without.

It was the first time the question was asked as school resource officers have become a contentious debate in recent years in wake of the death of George Floyd which sparked racial injustice protests, according to Jim Palmer, executive director of the WPPA.

"We were actually surprised to learn a majority of white and non-white people believe school resource officers make schools safer," Palmer said. "They also believe it's less likely to experience a school shooting in their school if an SRO is present and that's not something we would have thought going in given some of the rhetoric we've seen at the local level."

Madison and Milwaukee Public Schools voted to remove school-based officers in June of 2020. Activists argued police presence in schools can disproportionately impact black and brown students. Milwaukee officials say they trust these decisions to be made at the local level.

"We trust parents and teachers through our democratically elected school boards to do what’s best for students – not outside interests looking to continue the school to prison pipeline,” said State Sen. Chris Larson (D-Milwaukee).

A spokesman for Milwaukee Mayor Cavalier Johnson said, "Everyone involved shares a common objective – to make sure students and faculty are safe in an environment that is conducive to learning."

Public support for law enforcement is also growing after a slight decline over the last two years during protests and the COVID-19 pandemic, according to the poll. Seventy-seven percent approve of how their local police department is handling its job, 91% both white and non-white residents agree having well-trained police officers makes communities safer.

Views on police departments come as Milwaukee officials grapple over how to solve an unprecedented uptick in crime. Wisconsin is outpacing the national average on the number of violent incidents, according to Palmer.

A majority, 53%, don't support cutting police budgets to invest in social programs such as mental health services and homelessness. Forty-percent support reducing police budgets to make investments elsewhere in the community. Meanwhile, 64% approve of raising their taxes to invest in hiring more trained mental health police officers.

"They've made very clear in the two years we've been asking questions on this front that they don't want those increases in social programming investments to come at the expense of their local law enforcement budget and we think that's important," said Palmer.

For the second year in a row, WPPA asked respondents questions about perceptions vs. reality regarding officer-involved shootings. Sixty-percent, including 40% non-white, believed a majority of people shot by police were armed. However, in reality, 100% were, according to the poll.

Palmer said these questions are an important tool for law enforcement agencies.

"This signals to us…we need to do a better job of getting that message out and providing accurate information to the public," he said.

Many were also misinformed about non-white vs. white people fatally shot by police officers. Fifty-percent of white respondents believe a majority of people shot by police last year were non-white. Meanwhile 69% of non-white respondents had the same belief. In fact, six out of 27 people shot by police in 2021 were non-white, WPPA said.

The survey was conducted online with 1,119 adults participating from February 11-21, 2022. The margin of error is +/- 5% at the 95% confidence interval.

Other highlights of the WPPA Poll:

• 91% of the public and a majority of both white and non-white residents agree that having a well-trained police force helps make our community a safer place in which to live.

• Only 14% of non-white respondents indicate that police spend too much time in their neighborhoods.

• 73% of the public agree that the respect for law enforcement has decreased from a year ago.

• 70% of the public believe that Wisconsin has experienced an increase in violent crime over the past year.

• Qualified Immunity: A majority of the public (54%) disagree that police officers should be held liable for monetary damages when they followed their training and didn’t knowingly violate the law.

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