The 'evolving crisis' that has law enforcement across the suburbs and country worried

When the Arlington Heights Police Department put out a call for recruits in 2014, 589 would-be officers downloaded an application, and 243 of them passed a test to qualify for the force.

When the department did the same this year, just 136 applications were downloaded, Police Chief Nicholas Pecora said. Only 55 bothered to show up for the test a few weeks ago, and just 33 of them passed.

"You can look at the numbers and see there's a lack of interest in being a police officer," Pecora said.

Arlington Heights' situation is far from unique. Faced with a perfect storm of the pandemic, a changing labor market and often negative public perceptions of police work, law enforcement agencies across the suburbs and the nation are facing unprecedented staffing challenges.

  Arlington Heights police Chief Nicholas Pecora said his department has seen a steep decline in the number of potential officers applying and testing to join the force. Mark Welsh/, 2020

That, experts say, is leading to fewer cops on the street or cuts in specialty units and programs intended to build better relationships between law enforcement and the communities they serve.

In the Lake County sheriff's office, for example, deputies are being moved from special assignments to patrol duties, the bread-and-butter of the agency, Deputy Chief Christopher Covelli said.

"In a very sobering way, the numbers are way down, and it's why you're seeing agencies have to adjust their shifts just to have enough people on the streets," said Ed Wojcicki, executive director of the Illinois Association of Chiefs of Police.

What's happening and why

Law enforcement experts blame the staffing struggles on a combination of factors, some unique to policing and others reflecting general workforce trends.

While the decline dates back to before COVID-19, "all that's happened since then has accelerated it," said Chuck Wexler, executive director of the Washington, D.C.-based Police Executive Research Forum. That includes the killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis officer Derek Chauvin and the nationwide protests that followed.

In May, the group surveyed nearly 200 law enforcement agencies of all sizes across the country about their staffing levels and hiring. The results illustrate how departments are getting hit by a double-whammy - hiring has fallen 5% over the past year, while resignations and retirements increased 18% and 45%, respectively.

Overall, the departments reported that they have been unable to fill 7% of their open sworn officer positions.

"You have a hiring issue and you have a retention issue, where people are just deciding this is something they no longer want to do," said Wexler, whose organization includes law enforcement officials and others dedicated to improving the professionalism of policing.

"It's enough to have police chiefs worried about who are going to be the future leaders of their departments. That's very concerning," he said.

While issues such as pandemic fatigue are part of the problem, many we spoke with said what's driving the trend most is the negative view toward police officers from some quarters of the public and some political leaders. That's led to a raft of police reform measures that some in the profession see as anti-police, Wojcicki said.

"It's not only the laws, but the discussion that accompanies the laws that makes people reluctant to get into the business," he said. "Here's what we hear: If you're a cop, you're racist. If you're a cop, we're going to sue you. If you're a cop, you're probably violating our constitutional rights, right and left. If you're a cop, all you do is shoot people.

"That's a challenge for people who want entry into (the profession)."

Another factor is current law enforcement officers being less likely today to recommend the profession.

"When I go into a room and ask, 'How many of you would recommend this job to your daughters or your brothers or other family members?' very few people raise their hands," Wexler said. "Right there, that tells you that the current mindset of police officers is affecting prospective candidates."

Is there a solution?

Wexler and others say there's no simple fix to the struggles. Instead, departments nationwide are trying a patchwork of ideas to fill their needs.

One of the most common - though not a long-term answer - is seeking what are called lateral transfers.

"One of the big things they're doing is they're trying to steal officers from other departments," said Wojcicki, adding that he's aware of one suburban department that's recently hired six officers away from the Chicago Police Department. "That's not good for the profession."

Aurora police got creative this fall in looking for new ways to reach potential new officers by hosting a recruiting event at the Chicago Premium Outlets shopping center. Officers Jay Leonardi, left, and Jason Contreras spoke with people. Courtesy of Aurora Police Department

Elsewhere, departments - including the DuPage County sheriff's office - are offering higher starting pay and signing bonuses of up to $15,000 to new hires.

"If anyone questions whether this is real or not ... what department would be willing to pay $10,000 or $15,000 for a new recruit or to keep an officer if we weren't in the midst of an evolving crisis?" Wexler said.

Wojcicki said the state chiefs association also is studying whether there are opportunities to condense the hiring and training process, which now can take as long as a year to get a new officer on the street.

"You don't want someone out there that doesn't know what they're doing, but we're looking into ways that it might be streamlined," he said.

Departments and police groups also are trying more direct outreach to community colleges, civic groups and even high schools.

Reversing the trend may also require changing the conversation about policing. Wojcicki said departments are doing that by using social media and other forums to highlight the good work of law enforcement officers - from keeping the community safe to charitable efforts like Shop with a Cop.

"You need to tell a more positive story about what law enforcement is doing," he said. "But, you know, one bad video from 1,000 miles away can wreck all that."

In the meantime, chiefs across the suburbs and country are hoping for a return to the packed testing rooms of a decade ago.

"We're always going to need police officers," Pecora said. "I still believe it's a noble profession."

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