By Iacopo Luzi
In East Side, on a cold night with no one on the streets, the lights of Taylor Elementary School are turned on to welcome aspiring police officers. But almost no one shows up.
Taylor is open to host a Chicago Police Department recruitment fair, organized by Ald. Susan Sadlowski Garza (10th Ward). Other fairs are being held elsewhere in the city in advance of the Jan. 31 deadline to apply to become an officer.
“We organized this event to give a chance to people to apply for a good job, with a good salary, a possibility for many people here on East Side,” said Garza. However, despite the good intentions, fewer than 10 people showed up, stopping briefly to ask a few questions of the officers at the fair and then quickly disappearing.
“Once these events were crowded, and at the test [to become an officer], there were hundreds of people. Now, instead, people are not interested anymore in this job. They don’t want to become a police officer, especially in a city like Chicago, “ said one of the officers at the fair as he waited for people to show up.
The Chicago Police Department doesn’t have the actual number of people who applied in this recruitment session. The last time the department held an exam, in 2013, about 19,000 people applied, according to the Chicago Justice Project (CJP). 500 were hired. The department has about 12,000 officers and supervisors total, according to CJP.
An officer from CPD News Affairs said that in the current campaign, more than 70 percent of those who applied to take the test are minority applicants. However, CPD was unable to supply the numbers through which it found this percentage. The News Affairs officer said that this high percentage of minority applicants represents a growing trend compared to previous recruitment campaigns. In 2013, 58 percent of applicants identified as minorities, and in 2010, 53 percent of applicants did.
“The latest numbers reflect CPD’s goal to increase diversity among its ranks, and build a police department that represents the makeup of the city. We well advertised the recruitment on billboards throughout the city as well as in the communities and on social media. So we expect many people will apply,” said the officer in an email.
Flyers for the recruitment event emphasized the salary as an incentive, stating, “Start a well-paying job. Starting salary of $47,604, increased to $72,510 after just 18 months.”
Although the chance to apply only comes around every few years—the last time was in 2013— the impression among the officers at Taylor is that public sentiment against police is keeping recruitment down.
“After what happened in the last year in Chicago, especially after the [Laquan] McDonald case, people hate the police. They see officers like corrupt men ready to kill someone if they don’t obey,” said Officer Ramon Zavaleta, referring to the teen whose death sparked protests after the release of a video showing an officer shooting him 16 times.
Zavaleta stood in front of the auditorium to greet the few people who showed up and answer questions.
One officer noted that on the East Side, a predominantly Hispanic neighborhood where the Latin Kings gang has a strong presence, people may hesitate to show up to an event sponsoring police.
“They are scared. They don’t want someone outside seeing them coming here inside. It could be dangerous,” said the officer, who sat in front of a computer ready to launch a PowerPoint about the police exam. The presentation was scrapped because of the sparse attendance.
With an exam and eight tough months of training, becoming a police officer is not an easy task. But the job offers good benefits, including a full health care package, tuition reimbursement for a college education and assistance in buying a house.
“You have many benefits, but it is not worth the hassle,” said Dean Angelo, President of Fraternal Order of Police Chicago Lodge 7.
According to Angelo, it is is better to work in the private safety world because the salary is much higher, and there are less risks.
Garza, however, emphasized the importance of police work for public safety.
“These officers are all great people, and they only do their job,” Garza said. “People don’t understand it, and they only judge them when they do something wrong, ignoring all the times they help the community and make Chicago a safer place. I thought more people would have attended, but probably our expectations were too high.”
Another officer said anti-police sentiment will continue to affect recruitment in Chicago.
“Every year, many officers retire and we are always fewer in number,” he said. “They say that [the department] is recruiting less because of the budget, but at the same time, how can we patrol the city if people don’t want to be cops anymore?”
The officer, who asked that his name not be used, left before the fair was scheduled to end.
“No one is gonna come anymore, trust me,” he said, turning on the squad car before driving away.