Illinois survey finds crisis in police recruitment and retention

“We can only steal from each other for so long.”


Illinois police chiefs ranked “recruitment and retention” as their number one challenge in a statewide survey late last year. That was no surprise, but one question I consistently hear from elected officials and reporters is this: Do we have the data to back up our declaration that recruiting and retaining officers is increasingly difficult in Illinois?

Well, now we do. We surveyed Illinois Association of Chiefs of Police members in February asking how many of their officers resigned and retired in 2020 and 2021 and how many officers they hired. We borrowed some of the questions from a national PERF survey.

Simply put, our data largely backs up all the anecdotal information we have gathered in all parts of our state: It is getting much harder to retain and recruit officers in our police agencies, and we are at a point of crisis. It is noteworthy that the new state budget for FY2023 includes $10 million for recruitment and retention, but it is unknown how that money will be allocated. We had asked for $40 million to provide retention bonuses to all sworn officers.

We sent the survey to all our members in February 2022. The Illinois Sheriffs’ Association also sent it to all 102 sheriff’s offices. We received 239 responses. The Chicago Police Department did not respond and so its challenges are not reflected in these survey results.

Here are some of the top results overall.

RETIREMENTS AND RESIGNATIONS ARE INCREASING

Resignations and retirements increased by 29% in 2021 from 2020. Breaking that down, resignations increased by 65% in 2021 from 2020 and retirements increased by 7% in 2021.

Agencies reported an anticipated 846 retirements and resignations in 2022, a figure that will continue the trend from the past couple of years.

STAFFING LEVELS: THE MAJORITY OF AGENCIES FACE SHORTAGES

Sixty percent of reporting agencies said they are not fully staffed, based on their current authorized staffing numbers. Nearly 2 in 10 agencies (19%) have a current shortage of more than 10% of what they are authorized to have. One department reported all three of its sworn officers resigned in 2021.

Only 40% of responding agencies said they have no current shortage and that their current staffing level is equal to their authorized staffing level.

HIRING AND RECRUITMENT: APPLICANT NUMBERS WAY DOWN, RESIGNATIONS ARE UP

Responding agencies reported hiring 895 officers in 2020 and 2021 combined. Of those, 452 – or a stunning 49.4% – were lateral hires, which means that half of the officers hired were already fully trained and working for a different agency

Of agencies who reported giving an entrance exam in 2021, nearly all said they are having significant reductions in the quality and quantity of candidates. Many reported that the number of people taking the exam in 2021 was down by 40% to 70% from just two or three years ago; for some, the numbers are worse. Making matters worse is that many agencies reported a significant number of applicants who sign up for the exam but do not show up to take it.

A small number of agencies reported more people taking the exam in 2021, but in those cases, the increases are small, such as going from two to four exam takers or 150 to 170.

One agency removed its bachelor’s degree requirement in 2021 and received more applications, but only 38% of applicants were selected to take the exam. One agency ended residency requirements and saw an increase in applicants.

One agency typically had 100 applicants 20 years ago; it had only 15 at its test in 2021. Of those, only four passed, and of those four, two failed either the psych exam or background check.

One agency reported a smaller number of applicants but better-qualified applicants.

QUALITATIVE COMMENTS

Here are a few of the comments from individual agencies about changes in applicants since 2015, the year after Ferguson:

  • “Fewer than 20% passed the background phase.”
  • “The quality is much poorer.”
  • “Our washout rate has flipped. We have gone from 20%-25% background failure to 70%-75% failure (criminal histories; significant application dishonesty).”
  • “Significantly decreasing. It is a crisis!”
  • “We are currently attempting to renew our two-year hire list. After nine weeks, we have received one application.”
  • “The more college graduates that apply, the less likely they are to want to work nights and weekends. They seem to think they are doing us a favor by wanting to work here.”
  • “I am starting a lateral eligibility list because our academies in Illinois have so much demand that it is impossible to get all of my recruits into the academies in a timely manner."
  • “We can only steal from each other for so long.”

WHAT NEXT?

The question naturally arises as to what we are doing in response to the crisis. In Illinois, an all-blue state, we and local agencies are addressing it from multiple angles, but we do not have a unified all-encompassing strategy.

Here are some of our ideas:

  • The Illinois Association of Chiefs of Police asked for $759 million in new funding from the State of Illinois this spring to support law enforcement, of which $276 million was for recruitment and retention. The following suggestions were proposed, but these ideas have not gotten traction yet:
    - $15 million for establishing a minimum wage of $25/hour for part-time officers.
    - $46 million to support a minimum base salary of $60,000 for full-time officers, because Illinois has mandated a minimum salary for teachers.
    - Annual retention bonuses of $5,000 annually for full-time officers and $2,000 annually for part-time officers for the next five years. This would cost $190 million annually.
  • Reduce the amount of time it takes to hire an officer and get that person trained and working solo on the street. Currently, that process takes a year or longer.
  • Review and update structural issues emanating from our many Police and Fire Commissions at the local level.
  • We have told legislators they must stop talking about diminishing qualified immunity at the state level or creating a new state cause of action. Meanwhile, the ACLU and some legislators keep the issue alive in Illinois.
  • We are discussing whether some positive adjustments in pension programs for law enforcement might be feasible.
  • Several agencies are getting creative on their own by producing recruiting videos to appeal to their target audiences.

How is your agency addressing the recruitment crisis? Email your tactics to editor@police1.com.

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