Illinois Police Workforce Crisis Exacerbated by Criminal Justice Overhaul

By Cara Ding
Cara Ding
Cara Ding
Cara is a Chicago-based Epoch Times reporter. She can be reached at cara.ding@epochtimes.com.
June 10, 2021 Updated: June 23, 2021

CHICAGO—Since Illinois lawmakers passed a major criminal justice reform bill in January, five sheriffs have retired early and six sheriffs are set to retire this summer, according to Illinois Sheriffs’ Association (ISA) Executive Director Jim Kaitschuk.

“This is the most I’ve seen. They’re quitting as a direct result of the legislation,” Kaitschuk told The Epoch Times.

In a typical year, only one or two sheriffs would quit before serving their full terms, according to Kaitschuk. On top of the early retirements, more than 20 Illinois sheriffs have decided not to seek reelection when their terms end.

“It’s sad because these are individuals that have given their life to a profession that they obviously love and are passionate about, and I hate to see them leave under the circumstances that they are,” he said.

The recently enacted SAFE-T Act made sweeping changes to the Illinois criminal justice system, including abolishing cash bail in two years, creating a statewide certification program for police officers, mandating body cameras for all Illinois officers by 2025, and allowing anonymous complaints against police officers.

Gov. J.B. Pritzker, a Democrat, hailed the SAFE-T Act as ensuring “true safety, true fairness, and true justice.” But five major Illinois law enforcement organizations, including the ISA, derided it as “a monster bill” that punishes police officers for doing their jobs and allows criminals to roam free.

For example, the SAFE-T Act makes it a felony for officers to neglect to turn on their body-worn cameras while on duty, prohibits officers from reviewing body-camera videos before writing police reports, and includes ambiguous language that appears to prohibit officers from aiming a taser at an offender’s back—which is a common practice recommended by many taser manufacturers.

A follow-up bill has addressed some police concerns with the SAFE-T Act, but Kaitschuk said the original intent and direction of the legislation remain unchanged. He’s also concerned about other police reform bills in the lawmakers’ pipeline, including one that seeks to abolish the qualified immunity of police officers.

“If that one became law, I would quit, too,” Kaitschuk told The Epoch Times.

He has been a police officer with the Leland Grove Police Department since 2009.

The Illinois Fraternal Order of Police (ILFOP), which represents roughly 34,000 active and retired rank-and-file police officers statewide, conducted a member survey right before Pritzker signed the SAFE-T Act in February.

Three in five officers said they were considering early retirement because of the bill. Nearly half said they were looking for positions in other states or jobs outside of policing.

The survey was sent to all ILFOP members. Approximately 1,500 of them responded.

“Not only are we losing some of our best officers, but it’s also very difficult to recruit new officers,” ILFOP President Chris Southwood told The Epoch Times.

The Chicago FOP, the largest lodge within ILFOP, saw 230 members retire between January and May. During that same period, it only welcomed 130 new members from the police academy, according to internal data provided to The Epoch Times by the Chicago FOP.

“That bill makes working conditions for police in the whole state untenable forever. If you got the time to leave, there is no reason to be in law enforcement,” Chicago FOP President John Catanzara told The Epoch Times.

As for the dwindling number of new recruits, Catanzara said he’s grateful for those who are still willing to enter into Illinois law enforcement. “The first thing I tell them is: ‘I have no idea why you want to be sitting in those chairs right now, but thank you for joining the circus. You are out of your mind wanting to be a cop in this environment, but we will be here to protect you.’”

The Chicago FOP represents roughly 18,000 active and retired police officers. The Chicago Police Department (CPD) is the second-largest metro police department in the country, with approximately 11,000 sworn officers.

According to records obtained by The Epoch Times through a Freedom of Information Act request, CPD lost about 330 officers in the first four months of 2021, mostly due to retirements. During that same period, CPD brought on about 100 new recruits.

Smaller police departments in southern Illinois also face hiring woes. At Bloomington Police Department, in the most recent hiring cycle, roughly 50 applicants passed the written test. In a typical year, there would be around 130, according to Bloomington Police Department Public Information Officer John Fermon.

Out of those 50 applicants, Fermon predicts about 30 will show up for the follow-up physical tests and about 15 will pass the tests and proceed to background checks, after which about seven will pass the checks and head to the police academy. Half of those seven candidates will quit while at the academy, Fermon estimated.

“The old way to recruit was to eliminate as many people as you could and find the best candidates. Now you just have to take what you have,” Fermon told The Epoch Times.

He said a major reason behind the low job applications is the negative public perspective of police officers, which he thinks gained a foothold after the police shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson in 2014 and intensified with every following police shooting publicized by the national media.

“We are talking about a profession in which if something happens with a police officer in California, then everyone across America judges you. When you have a teacher in California molest a child, do you think a teacher in Bloomington is that person as well? It’s not fair,” Fermon said.

Some Illinois police officers have begun looking for jobs in nearby states where the social and political environment is more tolerant. Several went as far as Gulf Shores, Alabama, according to Gulf Shores Police Department Chief Edward Delmore.

Before Delmore moved to Alabama, he had worked in Illinois law enforcement for 30 years, with his last post as chief of police in the city of Fairview Heights.

“The two people I hired last month for the only two openings I had came from Illinois,” Delmore told The Epoch Times.

One of the new hires is a 34-year-old police officer from a Chicago suburb, and the other is a recent college graduate who would’ve served in Illinois if not for the recent criminal justice bill, Delmore said. Several other police officers have also applied for the positions, but the Gulf Shores police chief noted that he doesn’t have additional openings.

Delmore said he knew some police chiefs in Indiana and Missouri who also received applications from Illinois officers.

Those law enforcement officers who remain in Illinois will simply pull back and quit proactive policing, he said.

“Every community gets the kinds of law enforcement it insists on,” Delmore said. “Society must come to understand that the price they will pay for a more passive police officer is a more aggressive criminal.”

Cara Ding
Cara Ding
Cara is a Chicago-based Epoch Times reporter. She can be reached at cara.ding@epochtimes.com.