With giant billboards overlooking major highways on the south and west sides of the city, plus online videos and promotional handouts, the Chicago Police Department (CPD) is inviting residents to throw their hats in the ring to become cops.
CPD has been criticized for not having enough officers of color who can understand the needs of the communities it tries to protect. By June of 2016, the police force was 50 percent white, the other half was split roughly between African Americans and Latinos.
CPD’s efforts to recruit more minority officers appear to be paying off, with the percent of whites applying to be officers dropping from 38 percent of applicants in 2013 to 23 percent in the first round of applications earlier last year and Hispanics being hired at increasing rates.
But even as increasing numbers of Hispanics and Blacks are applying to become officers in the most recent recruitment efforts, Blacks are being hired at lower rates than whites and Hispanics, largely because they are either failing throughout the process or largely dropping out at some point, according to a five-year data analysis of the CPD hiring process.
The billboards, handouts and videos are part of the Chicago Police Department’s Be the Change campaign, upon which it has spent $167,000 over the past year. The campaign was launched to help fulfill Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s promise to hire 1,000 new police officers this year.
“Every month there would be officers coming out and hitting the streets of the city of Chicago,” said Rahm Emanuel during a recent news conference. “We are on our way to 1,000 new additional officers. So, there would be a new group in February, another group in March, April, May.”
Increasing the number of officers and the diversity of the police department has been a priority for Emanuel ever since his administration came under fire after the fatal police-involved shooting of Laquan McDonald —an incident that put the department under the spotlight and shed light on hundreds of other pending lawsuits related to police abuse.
Outcry from the community increased after the Justice Department released its investigation accusing CPD of violating the civil rights of residents, particularly minorities on the South and West sides of the city.
In order to regain residents’ trust and better connect with the community, the superintendent says he wants his department to reflect the demographic makeup of the city.
“When you look at Chicago, our demographics is roughly a third, a third, a third. So, the police department should reflect those demographics,” said Superintendent Eddie Johnson during an interview with Univision Chicago. “Recruitment is going really well...Now what we need to do is get them through the process.”
But the police department is far from accomplishing that goal, especially in regards to African Americans.
Hispanics and whites were hired at almost double the rate of African Americans according to 2017 data. African Americans made up only 17 percent of those most recently hired to join the police academy, a training program that is the final step before becoming a sworn officer.
How does the process work?
Being accepted into the police training is the result of a long and complicated evaluation process that can take several years and requires each individual to fulfill a long list of requirements.
After applying, each candidate must pass a written test that includes questions about geographic location, face recognition and logic exercises, among others. After that comes the physical test known as the POWER. Throughout the process, aspirants need to pass a series of background checks, a drug and polygraph test, a psychological test and a credit check. The process can take several years, and thousands of individuals who apply to begin the process never complete it.
Univision and the Chicago Reporter analyzed police recruitment data from 2013 obtained through an open records request. That year’s data reflects the most recent and accurate numbers of those who ultimately completed the lengthy hiring process. That recruitment effort brought in 19,000 applicants-- of those about 38 percent were white, 31 percent were Hispanic and 23 percent were African American.
A high percentage of African Americans who apply are having a harder time making it through the first stages of the hiring process, the data shows.
After passing the physical, psychological and drug tests, 587 white and 540 Hispanic applicants from 2013 were referred to human resources to be hired compared to only 180 African Americans from that application group.
Meanwhile since 2016, the department has recommended 379 Hispanics to human resources to be hired, followed by 363 whites and 134 African Americans. Those are not the final numbers for 2016, since some applicants are still making their way through the process.
Johnson said he is aware African Americans are making it to the hiring stage at lower rates than whites and Hispanics.
“They are passing the test, they are just not making it through the process so we have implemented a number of things to help them get through that process,” he said.
Those efforts include free training sessions and online tools to help the applicants, he said. But that might not be enough to address the underlying problem with the police recruitment process, some critics say: that minorities and low-income people are at a disadvantage.
South Side Ald. Anthony Beale (9th) called the department’s efforts to help African Americans get hired “all smoke and mirrors.”
“We can go out and say, ‘You know we are going to start a new campaign and start recruitment to get more people to apply,’ but if the system is skewed and if the deck is stacked against you,” you won’t get hired, he said. “I don’t care how many people you get through the process….The process itself is what ought to be changed.”
Why do Hispanics fare better than African Americans?
Beale said that larger social inequalities -- like lack of jobs and other opportunities -- end up systematically disqualifying African Americans from the police hiring process.
“When you look at the communities that have high crime areas, they are dying for new jobs, they are dying for opportunity, but the city is shutting these people out,” he said. “We need to change it and we need to quit playing like we are doing something about it.”
But it’s not only about the lack of jobs, says Tracy Siska, executive director for the Chicago Justice Project. Siska says over-policing and over-criminalization of black youth makes it nearly impossible for many to succeed.
“The way we arrest black youth in this city, I will be amazed if we could get any significant number of black male specifically that could actually pass a background check for the CPD,” he said.
Hispanic applicants have more support during the hiring process than African Americans do. There are groups like the Latin American Police Association and the Puerto Rican Police Association designed to help them navigate the hiring process
“The police process begins the minute you sign that application,” says Waldemar Cruz, president of the Puerto Rican Police Association.
“Just taking the application, signing it and passing the test doesn’t mean it ends there, it starts there and we have to teach our community that they are going to check everything from background to drug testing or drug screening to tickets to your credit.”
Few dispute the need for a more diverse police force. But truly regaining residents’ trust and reducing crime will take more than just increasing the number of police officers, many experts say. Rather, the department should eradicate the culture of abuse and get rid of officers who don’t follow that mission.
“The department should focus on getting rid of people who have no business being police officers and replace them with good officers,” said Craig B. Futterman, Clinical Professor of Law at the University of Chicago Law School. “We are starving for accountability…. we are starving for a change in that culture of silence.”