The Chicago Police Department on Wednesday announced it will hire nearly 1,000 new officers over the next two years -- an ambitious plan at a moment when departments across the country are grappling with poor officer morale amid criticism of policing in black communities.
The Chicago plan begs the question: Why would anyone want to sign up to be a cop right now?
FBI Director James Comey, big city police chiefs and academics have all raised the concern that some big cities — including Chicago, which has already recorded more than 500 murders this year — may be witnessing a surge in crime partly because officers fear being scrutinized in the next viral video.
“More and more, departments are finding that people are reluctant to consider policing as a career, because of the tension that exists in communities across the country,” said Darrel Stephens, executive director of the Major Cities Chiefs Police Association. “It’s particularly tough in communities of color. The reality is those are exactly the people we need.”
The issue is a big one for departments big and small throughout the country, who are pressing to attract more minority recruits. Just 29% of black respondents expressed confidence in police compared to 58% of white respondents, according to aggregate polling data published by Gallup in July.
Chicago may be in a better place than some of its rivals. About 71% of applicants of the more than 14,000 applicants who took the police exam earlier this year were minorities, according to the city.
But other cities are simply finding it is difficult to find qualified applicants to fill vacant slots, or to keep the experienced cops they already have.
In Ferguson, Mo., which entered a federal consent decree following a Justice Department investigation that was spurred by the 2014 fatal police shooting of 18-year-old Michael Brown, the department has 13 vacancies on its 49-member force.
In Phoenix, which last year lifted a seven-year hiring freeze due to budgetary concerns, the city is hiring about 25 officers per month as it tries to gradually fill more than 430 vacancies. But the push to staff up has been somewhat negated by what the department considers “abnormally high” attrition rates.
Lt. Anthony Lopez, of the Phoenix department's operations employment services bureau, said the 2,800-officer department lost 185 officers last year and is on pace to lose the same number this year.
Lopez said while the current climate is not impacting recruitment, it may be having an effect on longtime officers' calculations — some who were able to achieve retirement savings goals early as a result of overtime opportunities caused by the hiring freeze.
“There could be some merit to the idea that officers are thinking it’s getting more dangerous out there, people are deciding to conclude their careers, retire and go out into civilian life,” Lopez said.
In Dallas, where four city police officers and a rapid transit officer were assassinated in July at a protest, the Dallas Police Department has long had difficulty retaining officers as surrounding agencies have effectively recruited them away with better pay.
The DPD saw applications surge following the assassinations as the police chief urged those concerned about policing to join the department and change the dynamic from the inside. But the department’s retention rate has floundered. So far in 2016, the department has lost 228 officers, including 156 who had more than five years of experience, according to department data presented to the Dallas city council last month.
"I wouldn't even let my son be a police officer in the City of Dallas anymore," Dallas Police Association Vice President Mike Mata, recently told WFAA-TV.
The Chicago announcement on a hiring push came as violent protests erupted early Wednesday in the streets of Charlotte after the police-involved shooting death of 43-year-old Keith Lamont Scott. Police say Scott, who was black, was holding a weapon. His family insists that he was only brandishing a book.
The Charlotte incident followed just four days after a police officer in Tulsa, Okla., fatally shot an unarmed black man who was standing outside his vehicle.
Chicago has been at the red-hot center of a national conversation on policing in African-American communities, since the city was forced by court-order late last year to release disturbing video of a white officer firing 16 shots into Laquan McDonald, a black teen with history of mental health problems who was only wielding a small knife.
The officer who fired the shots, Jason Van Dyke, was charged with first degree murder and the incident sparked weeks of protests in the city and spurred the U.S. Justice Department to open a civil rights investigation of the department.
In announcing the plan to hire 970 officers, Chicago Police Superintendent Eddie Johnson said the “pressure to perform is greater than ever before (with) cameras and videos it means we are always and constantly in the spotlight.”
To those who are pondering whether to take the plunge or stick around with the force, Johnson argued there are few jobs where you can have as much impact.
“I don’t know a profession as noble as being a police officer,” Johnson said.