Behind the “soft on crime” narrative that dominates emotional campaign ads for Republican candidates for governor and U.S. Senate are two statistics that put those allegations in context:
First, uniform crimes reported by local law enforcement agencies across Wisconsin went up only 0.4% between 2020 and 2021.
Second, crimes local law enforcement agencies reported went down in 53 of Wisconsin’s 72 counties in that one-year period—a downturn that included Kenosha County, where riots broke out in 2020.
Milwaukee County and Kenosha are the faces of the “soft on crime” charges dominating the campaigns of Republican Tim Michels for governor and Republican U.S. Sen. Ron Johnson, who is seeking a third six-year term.
Michels and Johnson are running against Democratic Gov. Tony Evers, who is seeking a second four-year term, and Democratic Lt. Gov. Mandela Barnes, trying to unseat Johnson.
Uniform crime statistics show just how much Milwaukee County is an outlier in a state where the numbers of major crimes increased slightly or dropped between 2020 and ‘21.
For example, state reports say the total number of 11 specific crimes reported in Milwaukee County jumped by 17%—from 45,822 in 2020 to 53,710 in 2021—in one year. And the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel’s count of murders in the city so far this year was 183 on Friday, far ahead of last year’s pace.
Republican Party leaders, the campaigns of Michels and Johnson and third-party groups supporting Johnson continue to hammer Evers and Barnes as “soft on crime.”
“Wisconsin is a crime-filled state,” Maddie Anderson, of the Republican Governors Association, said last week, recounting recent violent crimes in Milwaukee that included the shooting death of a 12-year-old girl.
“Under Gov. Evers, cold-blooded killers and child rapists know they can commit their crimes, serve a little time and be set free into Wisconsin’s communities,” Anderson added.
Context is also helpful here.
The Wisconsin State Journal reported that the state Parole Commission granted 460 discretionary paroles since Evers took office in January 2019. But the Commission granted 650 paroles during the two terms of former Republican Gov. Scott Walker and more than 23,000 during the four terms of former Republican Gov. Tommy Thompson, the newspaper said.
In a news release, state Republican Party officials said, “When Ron [Johnson} pushes back against Mandela Barnes, he’s really pushing against releasing 50% of Wisconsin’s prison population [and] ending cash bail.”
A campaign ad for Michels says Evers “let Kenosha burn” after 2020 rioting.
State reports say the number of reported crimes dropped in Kenosha County by 9% between 2020 and ‘21, although the number of homicides went from eight to 16, the number of rapes jumped from 66 to 109 and aggravated assaults went from 348 to 361. Fewer robberies (101 to 34) and burglaries (291 to 240) were reported.
Crime-report numbers can suggest how safe, or unsafe, are counties whose voters will decide who wins the races for U.S Senate and governor.
Some of those counties, and the one-year change in five specific crimes, include:
- Milwaukee County: 45,822 crimes reported in 2020 and 53,719 in 2021.The number of murders increased from 197 to 205; rapes increased from 550 to 574; robberies fell from 2,172 to 2,070; aggravated assaults decreased from 7,394 to 7,434 and burglaries dropped from 4,172 to 3,451.
- Dane County: 14,418 crimes reported in 2020 and 14,016 in ‘21. The number of homicides fell from 16 to 15; rapes increased from 143 to 206; robberies decreased from 223 to 185; aggravated assaults increased from 863 to 906; burglaries dropped from 1,796 to 1,415.
- Rock County: 4,389 crimes reported in 2020 and 4,036 in ‘21. Seven homicides in both years;
- rapes increased from 68 to 72; robberies decreased from 75 to 54; aggravated assaults increased from 238 to 304; burglaries decreased from 325 to 274.
Barnes and Evers are trying to shift the debate from crime to Johnson’s record on abortion. Michels “opposes exceptions for victims of rape and incest and stated clearly that … would even apply to 12-year-old rape victims,” said Evers campaign manager Cassi Fenili.
Barnes is also highlighting Johnson’s role in efforts to overturn President Trump’s 2020 election loss. “Johnson wanted to hand deliver a fake slate of electors for Wisconsin,” Barnes said.