Photo by José Alejandro Córcoles

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Despite a successful push in 2016 to attract more black applicants to the police force, the Chicago Police Department has hired relatively few African-Americans.

In 2017, the police department hired whites and Latinos at rates more than double that of African-Americans, who made up just 17 percent of the total 1,126 new hires.

It’s not that blacks shy away from seeking police jobs. A Chicago Reporter examination of police hiring data going back to 2013 – the most complete recruitment records available – shows that many African-Americans have applied to the force in recent years. They just haven’t been hired, hurting efforts to further diversify the department as it struggles to improve its relationship with black communities.

Of more than 8,000 black applicants, nearly 30 percent didn’t show up for the written entrance exam, the first step in the recruitment process, while 17 percent failed the test, according to data analyzed by the Reporter. Many applicants who passed the test later dropped out of the process, which includes an extensive background check and physical, psychological and drug tests.

In some policing circles, the prevailing sentiment has been that few African-Americans were interested in joining the force. But the five-year data indicate a different story: When it comes to cultivating black candidates, the issue may be retention, not recruitment, in a multistep process that can take years.

“You can’t just recruit,” said Shari Runner, the chief executive for the Chicago Urban League, whose organization has been active in police reform. “You can’t just say we’ve got thousands of applications from African-Americans or people of color without really understanding what the culture is that allows people to succeed in [finishing the process] and then move forward.”

More black applicants, but not more black officers

Historically, the Chicago Police Department has had a hard time recruiting black officers, who are 23 percent of the force in a city that is about one-third African-American.

In the wake of protests following the 2014 fatal shooting of Laquan McDonald by a white police officer and a string of police shootings of African-Americans, Mayor Rahm Emanuel launched a campaign to recruit more black officers in an attempt to improve the department’s relations in African-American communities. Emanuel hired the Brown Farmer Media Group in November of 2016 to oversee the recruitment, which was part of the city’s effort to hire 1,000 officers by the end of 2018. During the months-long campaign, the department received more than 16,000 applications; 33 percent were from individuals who identify as African-American, according to police officials. At the time, Superintendent Eddie Johnson said he was “ecstatic” about the recruiting numbers.

The trend continued beyond the recruitment campaign. Last year, 38 percent of the more than 14,000 people who were invited to take the December entrance exam were African-American, according to a city release. Many of the applicants came from black neighborhoods where some residents have called for more officers who look like them.


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All recruits are asked to take a physical and psychological exam and submit to an extensive background check and drug screening. At the end of the assessment, the department recommends successful candidates for entrance to the academy.

Since 2016, of the 990 people recommended for employment, 13 percent are African-American, 37 percent are white and 38 percent are Latino, according to an analysis of CPD application data.

Though some Chicago community groups argue that more police officers of any race don’t solve issues of distrust with the police department, the low number of African-American candidates who make it to the academy is a bad sign for Emanuel’s effort to reform the CPD. The mayor has said that diversifying the force is central to a plan to refocus the department on community policing.

In a statement in October, Johnson said the police force needed to diversify. “CPD should reflect the demographics of this city,” Johnson said. “If we’re going to get there, we have to ensure that we have a viable pool of people to constantly pull from.”

Candidates are “self-selecting” out

Photo by José Alejandro Córcoles

Attorney Salvador Cicero is the chairman of Chicago’s Human Resources Board, which examines appeals from police applicants who fail or are rejected, says there has been a change in the types of candidates who come before the board.

It’s hard to pinpoint any single reason that blacks are dropping out of the process, but some critics say it is too slow and weighted to candidates who have family members who were on the force or the backing of legacy officer associations. Two associations, Latin American Police Association and the Puerto Rican Police Association, work closely with Latino candidates, who have a dropout rate 7 percentage points lower than blacks.

Black applicants need more of a support system throughout the application process, according to Tracey Ladner, former director of the Chicago Police Department’s human resources division. “You have to have that support group off the job as well as a support group you have from being on the job.”

The 2013 recruitment year, the only class for which the department has complete records, provides insights into how blacks fared compared to other groups. That year, 4,325 African-Americans applied; of that number, 1,050 did not show up for the exam and 813 failed it.

Ladner said black recruits are “self-selecting out” for a variety of reasons. The process can take years and many candidates simply move on to other opportunities, she said. With historically fewer African-American officers, there are not as many legacy families to usher in young recruits.

“It’s been more whites on the job than other minorities,” said Ladner, now the communications officer for Chicago branch of the National Organization of Black Law Enforcement Executives. “There are more people in their families who’ve been police officers, so they have a better idea of what that life is like.”


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Ladner said that the city has to do a better job of recruiting individuals, but also their entire family. “You have to assure their mother that you know the chances of them getting shot are relatively low,” she said.

Other critics of the department’s hiring process claim that it is discriminatory.

Charles Wilson, chairman of the National Association of Black Law Enforcement Officers, said prescreening exams have been used to discriminate against black recruits.

“They bang us out on the agility exam,” he said. “We do not typically go into the exam being ‘fit and ready.’ We go out into the yard and shoot hoops, but we don’t get into the idea of doing a daily run. Our counterparts are heavily into that. So, they are more prepared for the agility examination.”

Ald. Anthony Beale of the 9th Ward said the hiring process systematically excludes minorities. The biggest issue is the background check, which “really wipes out minorities,” he said.

Recruits can appeal to Chicago’s Human Resources Board if they feel they have been unfairly dropped from the recruitment process. The board, which is led by attorney Salvador Cicero, primarily handles discipline and termination within the police, but it also examines appeals from candidates who fail or are rejected.

Cicero said the growing number of people who have applied to be officers in recent years has resulted in more applicants being denied.

There has been a change in the dynamics and types of candidates who come before the board, he said. He and his colleagues are adjusting to a changing social culture in Chicago.

“I have seen things that the law does not contemplate,” Cicero said. “The use of drugs is more prevalent now than it was in years past. The way that drugs and drug use was treated is different. If you use cocaine in the last 10 years, you are out. You want to be a police officer, you shouldn’t use cocaine. But the use of marijuana is much more prevalent now. If we feel it is an occasional use, and they are an excellent candidate, there are situations where we say, ‘We don’t think the city has proved that it is more than an occasional use.’”

Beale said the background checks are designed to exclude candidates of color. “I have been trying to get it changed for several years now, but there’s always resistance to changing the whole entire hiring process.” In a heated exchange at a November budget meeting, Beale questioned Superintendent Johnson about the department’s hiring of African-American candidates.

People of color are more likely to struggle financially and with employment, said Beale, and the hiring process holds that against them. “If you don’t have a job,” he said, referring to the high unemployment rate for black men, followed by Latinos, “you’re going to have bad credit. If you have bad credit you can’t be a police officer.”

Echoing a criticism from recruits, community groups and officers alike, Beale said the hiring process takes too long. “In Chicago, you take a test and it takes you months to find out the results of your test. That leaves room for error and for manipulation,” he said. “There are too many systems out there now where you can scan your results and know what your test results are immediately before you leave. We need to change it.”