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Chicago PD ‘brain drain’? 660 cops retired in 2021, almost twice as many in 2018

While the reasons for leaving vary, experts warn that the large number of senior staff members departing has broader implications


Chicago Police Department recruits stand at attention at the CPD Education and Training Academy on July 6, 2020.

Antonio Perez

By Paige Fry
Chicago Tribune

CHICAGO — Officer Mahir “Mike” Affaneh panicked after he heard Mayor Lori Lightfoot make a statement in October that officers might have to go on a no-pay status if they refused to be vaccinated.

Affaneh, 53, who had worked as a Chicago police officer for 26 years, had not had the shot at the time and couldn’t afford to go without pay. So two days later, he retired.

It was a hasty decision that he now regrets, he said, but it made him one of more than 660 Chicago police officers who retired and collected their pensions in 2021, according to data from the Policemen’s Annuity and Benefit Fund of Chicago. The number is about double from 2018, when about 350 officers retired and collected their pensions.

“A lot of people left early for their reasons, but the morale is down in the department for sure,” Affaneh said, adding that officers have left due to working long hours, having their days off canceled and the department being short-staffed.

While CPD leaders said the retirement rate has now stabilized, experts warned such a large number of more senior officers exiting may contribute to a “brain drain” at the top of the department. The reasons for officer departures have been numerous, experts said, from citizens having a negative view of police in the wake of major police misconduct cases, such as the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis, to officers being placed under new scrutiny, to vaccine mandates.

Sean Malinowski, the University of Chicago Crime Lab’s director of policing innovation and reform, said organizations like CPD losing experienced officers and supervisors means that some of those who set the agenda and policies over time are now gone. If the department is losing those people, it’s going to impair its ability to make policy changes the public is demanding and those called for by the consent decree the department finds itself under.

As the department loses some in supervisory ranks, such as sergeants and lieutenants, there are fewer leaders confronting risk-management issues, Malinowski said, and it is those with more experience who younger officers look up to and count on to sustain proposed cultural changes.

“It’s a difficult thing to do when you have a department like Chicago that’s so steeped in tradition,” he said. “And I think now about 12,000 officers, that have been (a) relatively insular organization, very difficult to change that culture, and then compounded by the fact that you’re losing some stability at the top ranks and at the supervisory ranks.”

[RELATED: Addressing organizational brain drain]

James Alan Fox, a Northeastern University criminologist, said there’s a nationwide issue of departments not being able to keep recruitment up with retirements. Many departments have also had big budget cuts, which affect hiring, too.

Officers today, perhaps more than ever, run the risk of being harmed on the job, Fox said, while also facing being suspended, fired or even prosecuted for split-second decisions made on the street.

“And I ask the question, who wants to become a cop these days?” he said.

Effect on crime fighting?

Chicago police Superintendent David Brown has pushed back on the narrative that officers are leaving in droves.

Brown has said the average attrition rate for CPD is 3% to 5% annually, and the only recent spike occurred in 2021, when the rate rose to about 8.5%.

Brown called it a misconception that 2020 was a particularly bad year for officer exits, noting the attrition rate was 4%.

Still, it’s clear the perception of police has changed since the mid-2010s, and certainly after the murder of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer in 2020. Despite knowing many officers who did not agree with the officer who was convicted with Floyd’s murder, Malinowski said the public perception of police has turned so negative that a lot of people are walking away from policing because of it.

“I think it leads to an identity crisis for some officers,” Malinowski said. “And they’re like, ‘Well, you know what, I joined for the right reasons. I saw this as a vocation where I wanted to help people, I want to save people. If that’s not what they think we’re doing, I might as well go find another job.’”

Some police leaders have said the requirements for officers to be vaccinated has only accelerated the rate of officers looking to leave.

Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 7 President John Catanzara has said there would be a “bloodbath” in Chicago if his predictions of a mass resignation due to the vaccination mandate come true.

As of March 21, following the first vaccination deadline for city employees on March 13, only 14 Chicago police members were on no-pay status for not reporting their vaccination status into the portal and two were on no-pay status for failing to comply with the vaccine mandate.

Catanzara said via text message March 21 that the union’s stance hasn’t changed despite the numbers so far.

“This department and city are facing a crisis,” he said.

Despite the departures, experts say that a modest drop in the number of police likely won’t have much of an effect on crime, especially if officers are being deployed well and used effectively. But other more intangible, unmeasurable consequences could occur.

Some retirees should be retiring, because at a certain point, they may not be as effective as they were in their prime, Fox said. But some who have a lot of experience walk out the door, which could hurt. It also depends on what units people are leaving and where cuts are being made.

“In terms of just the numbers, obviously, if there’s a huge drop in the number of police officers, that will have an effect (on crime); a modest drop will not. It’s all a matter of deployment, not just numbers,” he said. “How do you use the people that you have, and how effective are they?”

Fox said certain crimes are more affected by a large attrition than others. Crimes that are not typically observed by the police, like homicides and sexual assaults, shouldn’t be more or less deterred by the number of police officers. But other crimes, like those involving the drug trade, could be deterred by police patrolling hot spots.

While there have been some studies that show the modest impacts on the amount of police officers and crimes, Fox said that impact is generally washed out by the general fluctuations of crime rates.

“Unless you’re talking about huge drops in the police size, then anyone who thinks that it’s just going to be doomsday is sort of jumping the gun,” he said.

‘The sky is not falling’

The attrition rate was affected by pandemic restrictions on class sizes at the city’s police academy, Brown said, a factor that is now reversing.

A COVID-19 outbreak occurred at the police academy in the summer of 2020, which caused the academy to shut down for cleaning and mitigation. At the time, online tests were not available for applicants, but an online portal was created in 2021.

“So about 18 months of not having an in-person test for police officers really is the aggregate of what is now two years of attrition on top of each other,” Brown said of efforts to rebuild the police ranks.

At a news conference earlier this month, Brown announced that the department is waiving the requirement for 60 hours of college credit to apply to be a Chicago police officer for those who have had careers in the social services, health care services, professional trade industry, licensed professional security or education or those who worked as a correctional officer, peace officer or detention officer.

The New York City Police Department requires 60 hours of college credits, but other departments such as those in Los Angeles and Philadelphia only require high school diplomas, Brown said.

Brown said he hopes this waiver will expand the pool of candidates and bring in more diverse applicants.

At a news conference this week, Brown said the department received 400 candidates on the day of the announcement, and the department has had more than 3,000 applicants since January to fill about 1,100 vacancies.

“Encouraging news,” Brown said. “A lot more work to do, but the sky’s not falling.”

Lowering standards

Former Officer Affaneh said there are probably a lot of good people out there who don’t have college experience who could be good cops if they went through the proper background investigations and have good common sense.

Many departments in addition to CPD have also been mitigating the departures by using more aggressive recruitment tactics and changing the application requirements such as waiving or lowering the amount of college credits needed. Although, some experts warn that lowering the educational standards for applicants or loosening background checks could cause issues later.

Fox, of Northeastern, said that if departments lower their standards, they run the risk of having people who simply are not as qualified.

When asked if there was anything departments could do to attract more well-qualified candidates, Fox said that besides raising salaries, departments can try to change the general public’s attitude toward policing. But it’s a slow process, he said.

Malinowski, of the University of Chicago Crime Lab, said there were times in the 1980s and 1990s when departments made changes in application requirements to attract more applicants, such as doing less rigorous background checks, that led to problems 10 or 15 years down the line.

“You can find evidence that in police departments across the country is that when there is pressure to recruit, they loosen up sometimes, and then later, they’ll call a blue-ribbon panel together to say, ‘Hey, what happened here? How do we have this corruption in the particular city or how did we have this misconduct come about?’” Malinowski said. “And oftentimes, when they deconstruct it, they’ll say, ‘Well, some of these folks came in during a period of time when we, admittedly, maybe needed you, but we had to loosen up the standards or weaken backgrounds.’”

Ralph Cilento, a retired NYPD lieutenant commander of detectives who is now an adjunct professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, said lowering the standards for becoming a police officer can be harmful.

“As a citizen of Chicago, don’t you want smarter, better-educated, more mature cops? Of course we all do, but instead of treating the cops correctly, they dumb down the police department. The dumbing down of the police is the worst thing ever,” he said. “They’re doing that to combat high retirements and low recruitments because nobody wants the job.”

‘People that can leave, will leave’

People traditionally haven’t left policing until they’ve had at least 20 years on the job, but the latest trend has been defying that, Malinowski said.

Some officers with only a few years on the job have been opting to go to suburban departments.

“That’s troubling because that’s a hedge against losing talent. We spend a lot of money in Chicago and other cities to train police officers, so we have a huge investment in those officers both coming out of the academy and then as we continue to train them and they get experience on the job,” Malinowski said. “So if we don’t get a full 20-plus years out of them, you don’t get as much of a return on your investments as a city.”

Malinowski said that when it comes to cultural change and improving police service, the general recommendation is to have more education for officers coming on the job, not less. The issue of not being able to find recruits is unusual because, typically, there are many more recruits than spots, but that’s no longer the case.

Especially in Chicago, experts said it is psychologically difficult to be an officer while responding to trauma every day, and feeling like they’re not accepted in society or making a difference.

Cilento,ofJohn Jay College of Criminal Justice, said the older officers are when they get on the job, the fewer chances they are willing to take.

“So bottom line is that there is a scorched-earth policy when it comes to police,” Cilento said. “All of this anti-police sentiment is all manifesting itself in people that can leave, will leave. So you know, people are not going to do 28, 30 years anymore. They’re hitting their minimum requirement and getting out.”

‘It was fun’

Mahir Affaneh joined the Chicago Police Department in December 1995 and started as an officer in the Wentworth District. He retired after working in forensics for the last four years. He and his family are from Jordan, but they moved to the Chicago Lawn neighborhood when he was 2 years old.

“The reason I retired early was kind of a mistake,” he said. “I tried to get back on. I tried to meet with the mayor. I made the request over and over since that first day I retired. ... They have a policy that once you retire, there’s no coming back.”

Affaneh said he panicked when Lightfoot said unvaccinated officers could go on no-pay status because he couldn’t afford it. But Affaneh changed his mind after seeing family members get vaccinated, and he plans on getting vaccinated, too. He also realized that he would’ve had better insurance benefits had he stayed on.

“I should’ve took my time before I actually decided to retired, but I just didn’t,” he said.

According to the city’s Human Resources Department, retirements are final, and one would have to reapply by the Police Department’s current standards to be reinstated, but Affaneh is now beyond the 40-year-old cutoff for applicants.

In retirement, Affaneh said he’s been spending time at home with his family — he has five children, ages 13 to 33 — but he misses his co-workers and bosses.

“It is what it is,” he said. “It was fun. It was my fault. I can’t blame nobody else.”

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