Naperville aiming for police diversity from large hiring pool
At a time when police across the country are under increased scrutiny, Naperville has an officer applicant pool of 860 candidates -- thanks in part to a new recruitment campaign and the waiving of a $45 applicant fee.
Now, instead of an average of 270 candidates during the past four hiring cycles, Deputy Chief Jason Arres said, the pool has grown in a way that activists hope will help the overwhelmingly white department make progress toward one of its long-standing goals: better mirroring local demographics.
Naperville's population is 68% white, 18% Asian, 6% Hispanic, 5% Black and 3% other, according to 2019 U.S. Census Bureau estimates. The police department -- with 172 sworn officers -- is 89% white, 2% Asian, 2% Black, 5% Hispanic and 2% other as of 2019. The department has 21 female officers, making up 12% of the force; 19 of them are white, none are Hispanic or Black and two fall into other racial categories.
"One of the biggest things we continue to try to work toward every year is having our department reflect our community," Arres said. "I think it's important at any time -- whether we're in a controversial time for policing or a normal time for policing -- our department should match our community."
No matter a candidate's demographic background, applying to be a police officer in Naperville is a job for the patient and the dedicated. It requires prerequisites of a bachelor's degree in any field and a Police Officer Wellness Evaluation Report from the state.
The recruitment and hiring process, after meeting these prerequisites, involves at least nine steps, including five instances of review by the city's board of fire and police commissioners. The police department itself doesn't make any decisions on who to hire, Arres said. That responsibility falls to the board.
But department leaders set the tone of the process, which they take seriously as a means to hiring an employee who's likely to be around for 30 to 35 years as part of the public face of city government.
"What you see is a very in-depth process as it goes to hiring someone," Arres said. "Our police and fire board is very strict, which I like."
Even as the department looks to diversify, there are no "bonus points" for being a diverse candidate; decisions hinge on merit alone, as judged by factors including interviews, background screens, reference checks, a polygraph test, a psychological test and a medical exam.
That's how it should be, said Benny White, Naperville's first Black city council member and a former member of the board of fire and police commissioners.
"I'm not saying hire folks because of what they look like, but I want to get more people in the pool so there's more opportunities for them to get hired," White said. "Then, they've got to make it work on their own."
Members of the city's South Asian, Indian and Islamic communities appreciate the steps the police department has taken to reach out and invite their constituents to apply to become officers. Outreach with the Islamic Center of Naperville, for example, results in mosque members inviting officers to attend religious events "so they can come see the culture," Ashfaq Syed said.
The outreach "has to happen from both sides to fill that gap" in Asian officers relative to the city's large Asian population, Shafeek Abubaker said. Some of the work is about teaching the realities of policing and countering perceptions that it's a low-paid job or not as prestigious as, say, being a doctor, engineer or lawyer.
"Sometimes it is a false understanding," Abubaker said.
But Arres said those thoughts are common among many communities, regardless of their race.
"We get a lot of families worried because policing, even in Naperville, is a dangerous job," he said. "And that can't be taken for granted."
With a candidate pool of 860 officer-hopefuls in hand, the vetting and testing company IO Solutions now can offer a written exam and create an initial eligibility list, which will be valid for two years. From that list, the police department will call the first candidate available whenever a vacancy arises and begin the rest of the hiring process.
A background investigator checks their criminal, credit, employment, education and family history. An interview with three police leaders puts them through situational questions to prove they can handle the stress and trauma of the job. A psychological test ensures they are mentally fit for duty and are not at high risk of behaviors that would be a liability to the police department. A medical exam clears their heart and physical fitness for the job.
The length of the process and thoroughness of the steps gives a feeling, White said, that "we're hiring the best of the best."