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City Watchdog Finds Black Applicants To Police Department Are Least Likely To Be Invited To Academy

Despite making up 37 percent of the initial applicant pool, Black applicants from 2016-2018 represented just 18 percent of those invited to join the police academy, the report showed. But reforms have since been enacted.

Police guard the home of Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot.
Kelly Bauer/Block Club Chicago
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CHICAGO — The Chicago Police Department needs more Black officers if it wants to reflect the city it serves — but their applications are often rejected, the city’s top watchdog said in a report released Thursday.

Despite making up 37 percent of the initial applicant pool, Black applicants represented just 18 percent of those invited to join the police academy during a hiring surge conducted by former Mayor Rahm Emanuel from 2016 to 2018, the Office of Inspector General found.

“The pool of people who CPD invites to the academy is markedly less diverse than the pool of people who apply for the job,” Deborah Witzburg, deputy inspector general for public safety, told Block Club after the release of the report.

Comparatively, white, Hispanic and Asian candidates increased their share of those invited to the academy compared to the initial applicant pool. White applicants made up 22 percent of the initial pool and 34 percent of those referred to the Department of Human Resources for an invitation to the academy.

The study found female applicants made up 34 percent of the initial pool, falling to 27 percent of those invited to the academy, due to a large attrition rate following an initial physical fitness evaluation.

“Diversity and representation is important, and a more diverse department is a better and a stronger one,” Witzburg said. “What we are aiming to do in this report is to equip the city and the Police Department to adjust its own process to better meet that goal.”

The report sought to identify where in the process attrition rates were highest for individual demographics. Black candidates fell out of the applicant pool at disproportionately higher rates after the standardized test, physical fitness evaluations and background investigation stages, it concluded.

Attrition rates were captured at each stage in the process, but they could include those who voluntarily withdrew themselves from consideration or failed to show up for a test or fitness test.

After the written police exam, 62 percent of Black males and 66 percent of Black females were dropped from the pool, compared to attrition rates ranging from 42 to 47 percent for Hispanic, white and Asian males and 44 to 46 percent for females.

Seventy-five percent of Black females did not make it past the initial physical fitness test, compared to 67 percent of Hispanic females, 60 percent white females and 55 percent Asian females. 

Of those who made it to the background investigation stage, 63 percent of Black males and 56 percent of Black females were dropped after the investigations. Fifty-seven percent of Hispanic men and 50 percent of women were disqualified at that stage, followed by 48 percent of white males and 43 percent of white females. The attrition rate for Asian men and women was 32 percent.

The report said, “The hiring process may be equal in a formal sense, but it is not equitable. Equity in hiring involves identifying historical and structural barriers and addressing and remediating their impact on the employment process.”

Despite the report’s findings, Witzburg said there is “good news.” 

“The problem isn’t the applicant pool. The problem is the process,” she said. “We can’t force people to apply for the job; what we can control is the department’s and city’s process for those applicants once they come in.”

The Office of Inspector General made 17 recommendations to the Police Department and the Office of Public Safety’s department of human resources. Responding jointly, the departments agreed with all 17 recommendations and specified improvements or commitments that already have been implemented.

One change is to no longer automatically disqualify applicants who fail an initial physical fitness test early in the recruitment process. Instead, the department will use that test as a preparation phase to allow candidates to know where they stand ahead of a second state-mandated physical fitness test.

The elimination of a $30 payment required to take the police test in 2017 chipped away at the difference between Black candidates and all other candidates who sat for the test, increasing Black applicant turnout for the test by 7.3 percent compared to all other candidates at 1.4 percent.

The department also has increased opportunities to study for the written exam and said in response to the report that for the last three rounds of testing, the average pass rate has been 94.7 percent for all applicants and 88.6 percent for Black applicants.

The audit found the Police Department’s preference for hiring Chicago Public Schools graduates and military veterans “potentially” improved “the racial and ethnic diversity of the pool of recruits.”

Of the 12,255 sworn officers currently on the force, 47 percent are white, 28.7 percent are Hispanic, 20.2 percent are Black and 3.3 percent are Asian, according to data kept by Chicago’s Office of Inspector General updated July 1.

While the number of Black candidates rose from 16 percent to 20 percent of police academy classes from 2016 to 2018, the increase did not keep pace with the number of Black officers retiring from the force, which is likely to continue, the study said. 

The majority of Black officers are “nearing or already at retirement age,” with 54 percent 45 or over and 39 percent 50 or older. 

Witzburg said the Police Department must clarify its goals around achieving diversity in the force. 

“What are we after? Are we after increased diversity in the hiring class, or are we after increased diversity in the department?” she said. “Those two options portend for very different approaches.”

That could include expanding recruitment efforts in neighborhoods from which Black applicants hail. Like the police force itself, a large proportion of academy applicants live on the Northwest and Southwest sides, predominantly white enclaves home to city workers, “which is unlikely to be unrelated,” Witzburg said.

“People who are related to and grow up around and live near members of the Police Department are likely to kind of be aware of the job and know people who do it and know something about what the kind of real life of it looks like,” she said.

But, knowing where Black applicants live “provides a kind of targeted and well-tailored opportunity to improve the diversity of the applicant pool,” without spreading recruitment efforts across every neighborhood in the city,” Witzburg said.

The Police Department said it will urge aldermen to identify and locate candidates in their wards and create a unit in the community policing division to recruit year-round, “with a focus on grassroots community outreach.”

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