How an Ill. Police Department Filled its Ranks Despite Officer Shortages

March 19, 2024
Currently, the Aurora Police Department has 326 budgeted positions—the most in the department's history—and just seven job openings, which are expected to be filled quickly, according to the chief.

Despite a national police officer shortage, the Aurora Police Department is having no problems recruiting new officers to fill its rising number of positions, according to department officials.

report from the U.S. Department of Justice, which was published in October 2023, said that police departments across the country “face an historic crisis in recruiting and retaining qualified candidates.”

study by the Police Executive Research Forum earlier that year found that, despite rising recruitment numbers, departments were still losing more officers than they were hiring new ones.

According to the report by the U.S. Department of Justice, fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic, a tight labor market, reported community frustration with the police and concerns about officer safety are contributing to the national  shortage of officers.

That report goes on to suggest a number of short- and long-term ways departments can improve their recruitment strategies and retain their current officers, but the Aurora Police Department has already bounced back from its pandemic-era lows, officials said in a recent interview.

Between 2020 and 2021, the Aurora Police Department had almost 30 vacant positions out of a total of around 290 budgeted officer positions, according to Aurora Police Chief Keith Cross. He said the department now has 326 budgeted positions, the most in its history, and has only seven vacant positions.

Those vacant positions are expected to fill up fast, he said. According to Cross, the department is planning to hire as many as 10 new officers next month and will do at least two more hiring events this year.

The department is actually hiring slightly more officers than it has positions to fill in order to anticipate retirements, getting ahead of the curve and allowing officers about to retire the chance to train the officers taking their place, he said.

“Typically, we’ll hire a group of people in December because we know, come January, we’re going to lose a certain number of officers,” Cross said. “We’re at that point now where a lot of us that were hired in the mid- to late ’90s are getting to retirement age, and so our department has turned over quite a bit.”

The success of the department’s recruitment and retention efforts have come after the department took a “holistic look” at its hiring process and made a number of changes, according to Aurora Deputy Chief of Police Matt Thomas.

One of those changes is a program offering incentives to seasoned officers from other departments if they join the Aurora Police Department in a process known as lateral hiring.

Over the last few years, the department has raised starting pay for these lateral hires and has lowered the amount of training they are required to complete, according to Cross, due to the experience they possess. These officers used to be treated as if they were brand new, and so they were paid and trained accordingly, officials said.

With the new incentives in place, the department now recruits most of its new officers from other departments, Thomas said. Cross said the incentives have “helped us tremendously in trying to make up ground.”

But officers from other departments were moving to the Aurora Police Department for better training and opportunities even before the current incentives were put in place, according to Cross.

In fact, both Cross and Thomas were police officers at other departments before joining the Aurora Police Department over 20 years ago, they said.

Lt. Bill Rowley, who also started his career at a different department, said that the Aurora Police Department is known regionally as an organization with very high training standards and high morale, which has contributed to the influx of officers from other departments.

“Every police department in the area knows that’s where you want to go if you want to be a good police officer,” Rowley said about the Aurora Police Department.

The department invests heavily in training its officers, Thomas said, and at the start of the year, a new position was created to lead its efforts in professional development.

He said the new position, which is at the lieutenant level, will work with new officers to decide on a career path then offer them training and mentorships towards their goal. Some examples he gave of potential career paths include community policing, traffic enforcement and investigations.

The department also makes an effort to internally promote leaders, according to Thomas.

When existing officers or new recruits want to join the Aurora Police Department, they now have an easier time because of some changes made to the hiring process, Cross said.

These changes, including regular and personal contact with candidates and the manual review of applications by sworn officers, has helped to reduce the amount of time applicants spend waiting to hear back from the department and shows them that the department is invested in them from the beginning, Cross and Thomas said.

When an officer at a different department applies to join the Aurora Police Department, they are contacted within days to get the process started, according to Thomas. He said these lateral hires are an important part of the department’s recruitment strategy, making up around 60% of the officers the department typically hires.

New recruits can take up to a year to get fully trained, but because the officers who come from other departments have already attended the police academy, a 16-week course, and already have on-the-job experience of at least two years, they can get out in the field on their own quicker, Thomas said.

However, these seasoned officers have their own unique challenges when coming to the department, according to Cross. He said they must adapt to the department’s standards of professionalism, something they may not have been used to in their past departments.

“Sometimes, once you’ve been doing the job for a while, you kind of get in your routine of how you do things wherever you’re at,” Cross said. “Now, you go to a completely different agency who does things differently. It can be a lot for an officer.”

Department officials often pick between hiring new recruits or seasoned officers from other departments based on their current needs, Thomas said.

One of the department’s newest efforts to encourage new recruits to join the department is the Officer Explorer Program, according to Thomas.

He said the department already had a program for younger children – the youth law enforcement academy – and for young adults – the cadet program – but that the explorer program bridges the gap between the other two. When combined, these programs now gives young people interested in joining the police a clear pathway to becoming a sworn officer, Thomas said.

To recruit adults, the department has invested in marketing on social media and other online spaces, according to Thomas.

A significant part of the department’s main recruitment video, which can be found on the Aurora Police Department’s website, is focused on the department’s training and opportunities. A large portion was also dedicated to the department’s diversity and community engagement.

Cross said diversity is important to the department, particularly in its recruitment team, in part because people often have to see other people who look like them doing something before they can see themselves doing it, too.

“When I was growing up, I saw very few people, in this city, that look like me in the police department,” he said remembering his days growing up as a young Black man on Aurora’s East Side. “Even though I had an interest in doing it, in the back of my mind, I didn’t know if I’d ever be able to achieve that.”

The department is still not as diverse as Cross would like to see it, but the department has come a long way in the past few years, he said.

The Aurora Police Department is able to invest heavily in marketing and its training programs because of the support it receives from the city of Aurora and the community at large, both Cross and Thomas said.

This support has also allowed the department to stay ahead of the curve on trends from modernizing gear to community engagement, Cross said.

One example is a new survey tool that the department is using to track the community’s satisfaction with the police department, particularly after an encounter with an officer.

In this survey, those who interact with the police are given a call several days later to ask about their impression of the interaction, according to Thomas. He said some people are not called back, such as when they have been the victim of a violent crime and are at risk of being a victim again.

According to that internal survey, respondents overwhelmingly said they view the department positively. Of the roughly 5,000 responses, nearly 80% responded that they viewed the department either “positively” or “very positively,” while roughly 6% said they viewed the department “negatively” or “very negatively,” officials said.

“We knew we had good relationships in the community, but we wanted to capture that and see if there were ways that we could improve,” Thomas said.

The department also requests feedback on the types of crimes residents are most concerned about, according to Cross.

Results of the survey are currently internal to the department only, but the department plans to put the results on its transparency website in the coming months, according to Rowley, who is in charge of the survey software.

Similar surveys are sent out to the department’s officers to get feedback on training opportunities and ask for suggestions on ways to improve the department, Cross said.

High levels of training, opportunities for advancement and community support are helping to keep officers at the Aurora Police Department rather than sending them searching for new jobs, which has also contributed to the department’s high staffing levels, according to Thomas.

Plus, he said the department gives a retention bonus.

If some officers who plan to retire can be retained for a few extra years because of increased pay, the department benefits from those officers sharing their experience with new hires, Cross said.

“This person who’s been doing this job for 20 or 25 years, you want them to be able to pass some of that on to the person who’s coming onto the job,” he said. “If you don’t have that gap filled, sometimes it just can be very difficult for a bunch of new officers who are just coming in trying to learn the job.”


©2024 Chicago Tribune.


Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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