A tale of two metros: Several law enforcement agencies struggle to hire, while others manage to retain officers

Target 3

CENTRAL ILLINOIS (WCIA)– Central Illinois law enforcement agencies are in dire need of officers.

The Champaign Police Department is dealing with the most vacancies they’ve ever seen, and we heard the same in July about the need for corrections officers at the Champaign County jails.

After hearing this message over and over, our Target 3 team decided to dive into the bigger picture by compiling data from our five metros.

What we found: It’s split right about down the middle.

Champaign Police said the situation is critical. The department was down 22 officers out of 125 as of late July, and five of those officers retired or resigned that month.

The Springfield Police Department is also missing more than a dozen officers. The number was 17.5 out of 240.5 as of late July. Wednesday, Police Chief Kenny Winslow said it’s up to 24 or 25 vacancies.

“I believe we’re on the cusp of a recruiting crisis,” he added.

Statistics from late July show Urbana, Decatur, and Danville Police Departments were near fully staffed with between 1 and 5 vacancies.

Officer vacancies at Central Illinois’ five largest departments as of late July.

Although the Danville Police Department has one vacancy, Police Chief Chris Yates said it takes work to keep it that way.

“We have seen a decrease in the number of people wanting to become police officers,” he shared. “…But honestly, after looking at some of the lists and sitting in on some of the interviews, I see a higher…I see very good quality within the lower numbers.”

The agency keeps applications open at all times to create a running list of potential hires, according to Chief Yates. He said keeping vacancies at a minimum is all about staying ahead of people inevitably leaving.

“It’s all related,” Yates said. “Recruiting and hiring are advertising what we are, and what we stand for and what our mission is. Retention is making sure the reason why they chose our department and chose this occupation is exactly as advertised.”

Champaign has been dealing with the most vacancies. 17% of the force was missing as of late July.

Springfield was in a similar situation.

“It’s tough out there recruiting right now,” shared Chief Winslow. “The competition’s stiff, but obviously there’s a lot of people out there that still want to do this profession and we’re not going to lower our standards just to get people in through the door.”

Winslow said it’s been a pretty steady drop since budget cuts during the Great Recession.

“We do have 14 that are in the academy. We tried to hire 24. Unfortunately, we went through like 100-some-odd people, I want to say 113-114 people, to get that 14 people,” Winslow added.

In the last two and a half years, the agency lost 28% more officers than they hired. More often than not, the officer retired, rather than resigned.

“It used to be the pension was enough to keep you, the pension, the benefits was enough to keep you here for 20 to 25 years,” Winslow said. “…With that said, people are realizing that you know, maybe this isn’t for me, and they’re getting out, and that’s not a bad thing.”

In fact, the only two departments that had more hires than terminations between 2019 and 2021 were Urbana and Danville. Champaign, Springfield, and Decatur sat at a deficit.

“The cost of that is extra wear and tear on the officers that already have enough stresses that they’re dealing with,” Yates added.

Bringing on a new officer is about a year-long process, according to the Danville Police Chief, if they need to through the academy. Not to mention, the chief said there’s a year-and-a-half probationary period once an officer is onboarded with the department.

Here’s a full list of data Target 3 compiled for this story. Information was obtained through Freedom of Information Act requests to the five departments.

Chief Yates said Danville would be considered a medium to large department in Central Illinois. He said typically small departments have a tougher time hiring due to more competitive salaries in larger cities.

Although, when we spoke with Rantoul Deputy Chief Justin Bouse in July, he said the department was fully staffed.

The Springfield Police Chief said they’re re-evaluating their testing process for new officers, and possibly adding multiple tests per year for more opportunities to bring officers on.

Champaign Police have been in discussions with the City Council about ways to change the hiring process. Less than a month ago, a group including human resources and former Chief Anthony Cobb presented a new way of hiring potential officers. This includes allowing applications continuously, instead of during certain hiring periods. They also talked about changing the application fee, eliminating panel interviews, and more. The hope was that this would help speed up the hiring process.

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