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As Chicago police seek more diversity, a former candidate questions the hiring process

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Kaneacha Davis

Kaneacha Davis is seen at home in Calumet City on Aug. 6, 2021.

Kaneacha Davis had her heart set on becoming a Chicago police officer.

She wanted her family to grow up in a safe neighborhood and give her daughters a financially stable life. And she likes helping people and taking control of a situation, she said.

But being honest about mistakes she made 15 years before applying with the Chicago Police Department — including an incident where she said she inadvertently used a bad check — apparently cost her that dream job.

As CPD has faced recent criticism for struggling to hire and retain Black candidates, Davis is wondering why people like her, who don’t have a criminal record and showed interest in the profession, were dropped from the process. Police leadership has said it is developing ways to bring more diversity to the department’s ranks.

“It was just something I always, I felt like that was in me,” Davis told the Tribune about her experience. “That I was destined to, you know, be a police officer.”

In a July report, the office of city Inspector General, Joseph Ferguson said the police department has failed to hire an adequate number of Black officers to reflect the makeup of the city, with many candidates washing out of the process and limiting the department’s diversity.

That report looked at hiring data from 2016 to 2018 and showed that at the beginning of the initial application process during the review period, 37% of CPD applicants were Black in a city where 30% of the population is African-American. But by the end of the process, only 18% of all candidates who ultimately were invited to the police academy were Black.

The department has since created a recruitment and retention team, and Yolanda Talley, a 27-year veteran of the department and a Black woman, will lead it as deputy chief of recruitment and retention.

Talley said the team, which was created July 30, will be tasked with looking at why so many Black candidates don’t complete the hiring process and what changes the department can make to keep more of them moving forward.

"I got on in June of 1992 so I'm almost at 29 years at the end of the month. I personally have never seen morale be this low in the department," said Jim Calvino, president of the Chicago Police Sergeants Association. Calvino says that low morale is helping to push a surge of retirements and recruitment troubles for Chicago PD. Calvino: "When I first got on, we marked our seniority basically, on our left sleeve of our outer garments. A star means 20 years. When I first got on, I'd see guys with a star, a bar, a second bar, sometimes even two stars. Now guys are leaving. They're leaving. They just can't deal with it any longer."According to the Chicago Sun-Times, 560 officers retired in 2020 as part of a 15% rise in retirements. That follows a 30% increase in retirements in 2019. Calvino: "We are now about a hundred sergeants short on the street. Supervisors need to be at a 10-to-one ratio one sergeant for 10 officers by the end of 2021. I'm getting feedback from sergeants saying they're supervising 20, 25 officers. There's no way you can, in good faith, say I am able to supervise that many people."And Chicago isn't alone. There are documented staffing shortages in New York, Baltimore and Minneapolis. The Philadelphia PD has more than 260 vacancies and the number of planned retirements for the department is about six times higher this year than last year. The Fraternal Order of Police President in Philadelphia told Newsy, "Were approaching a crisis with staffing levels. Its the perfect storm of several hundred officers retiring or leaving the job in the city for higher pay and less crime out in the suburbs."Part of that perfect storm is COVID. More active-duty officers died of COVID in 2020 than all other causes combined...including car crashes, heart attacks and being shot to death.Calvino: "The department wasn't prepared with equipment for us. And that really showed us officers, 'Well, who's got our back?' You know, we're out there protecting, but who's going to protect us?"Police unions and officers also point to some police reform measures that they believe make it harder to recruit. In Philadelphia, there's a new residency requirement that says potential officers must live in the city for a year before they can enter the academy with the intention of building a more diverse department and hiring officers that are better acquainted with the community they serve.But the FOP president told Newsy the law is impractical because potential hires are "not guaranteed a job or a slot in the academy."In Colorado, a long list of state-wide police reforms includes a ban on qualified immunity that shields cops from lawsuits. And while many departments in the state have not suffered a mass exodus of officers, one county sheriff said, "risks of civil litigation were among the top concerns" during exit interviews. "If there's a failure to retain bad officers, or recruit officers who don't want accountability? Good riddance," Mari Newman, Colorado civil rights attorney, said. Newman represents the family of Elijah McClain. McClain was killed by the Aurora police department in 2019. Newman: "If there are officers who don't want to continue to work in law enforcement, because they'll be accountable for their actions, those are not officers we need."The Chicago Police Department has been under a consent decree since 2019 to reform the department. For Sgt. Calvino, he says he welcomes reform and officers who want to do the job the way it should be done. Calvino: "I got a call the other day from somebody in Philadelphia, telling us, we should go on strike. And I almost threw the phone across the room. How dare someone say that? Who's gonna protect that person down the street? It could be your mother, my mother, your father, my father. That's my job. That's what I signed up for. And I took an oath to do that. And I would tell the prospective officers out there that, you know, it's a noble job. You go through life, helping others that can't help themselves."

Her team will also start to follow candidates throughout the hiring process and try to keep them engaged and interested, Talley said.

“We don’t have a problem with attracting Black candidates to the police department and signing up for the test,” she said. “We have a problem with keeping them engaged, keeping them in the process, because at some point for whatever reason, they tend to drop off.”

‘I was young’

Davis applied with CPD in 2013 and heard back two years later, she said.

She was raising her first daughter at the time, working overnight shifts as a clerk at the post office and studying criminal justice at a community college to meet the police department’s eligibility requirements.

The schedule was hectic. She would sometimes nap in her car early mornings between work and school, then had to pick up her daughter, she said.

She said she was honest during the CPD background investigation about mistakes she’d made when she was 19, like the time she unknowingly deposited a bad check a friend gave her. She also admitted to under-ringing products for a friend two or three times while working at a Walgreens in 2002. She was caught and fired.

In January 2018, Davis received a letter from the city’s Department of Human Resources telling her CPD disqualified her “on the basis of an investigation into your background.”

Davis appealed the decision and was granted a hearing more than a year later, in March 2019. The Human Resources Board sided with the police superintendent’s recommendation and Davis was removed from the eligibility list, according to a letter from the city.

A hearing report explaining the board’s decision says the city proved that Davis violated a section stating “any applicant who has engaged in any conduct which would constitute a felony is not eligible for employment. In 2001 or 2002, Candidate was arrested by members of the Blue Island Police Department and not charged with theft for depositing a ‘Bad Check’ given to her by her male friend.”

The report also cites Davis’ admitting to under-ringing incident as proof from the city of “conduct demonstrating a reputation or propensity for dishonesty.”

Both are incidents Davis was upfront about in the pretest admission part of the hiring process, and aren’t what she is about now, she said. She wonders what would have happened if she had just not told investigators about that part of her past. But with the department stating it is about honesty and integrity, she felt it was best to be up front to line up with those ideals.

“I was young and dumb,” she said said of her past conduct, “people change, you know.”

Disproportionately affected

Talley said police departments nationally have struggled to recruit new officers in general, and CPD has already made some changes in recent years to help diversify its force and to attract more candidates.

Kaneacha Davis

Kaneacha Davis, seen at home in Calumet City, Aug. 6, 2021, looks at documents from her attempts to join the Chicago Police department.

The Department has shortened the amount of time it takes to get results from the initial application test to about a week, and the entire hiring process has been cut down from about a year and a half to now a four to six month process, Talley said.

Talley said she isn’t sure whether there is some sort of statute of limitations when it comes to minor crimes or questionable actions like those in Davis’ situation. She declined to comment on Davis’ case, saying she wasn’t familiar with the specifics.

“Most of the time people think it’s just one thing in the background investigation,” Talley said. “And most of the time it’s not. Most of the time it’s like multiple things.”

In its report, the office of the inspector general noted that the background investigation “was among the stages in the process that most decreased the representation of Black candidates in the candidate pool.” Among the IG recommendations CPD agreed to adopt, according to the report, was to “post more detail about the disqualifying standards in the background investigation process.”

The department takes into consideration arrests and financial situations that may disproportionately affect Black candidates, Talley acknowledged.

“We know that, you know, some Black people are arrested at higher numbers than other groups. And we take that into consideration, we look at what people have been arrested for, what they owe money for, how much debt they may have,” she said.

A candidate-assistance program offers workouts and guidance on eating healthier to help candidates pass the physical fitness test, which is where a lot of women struggle to stay in the process, Talley said.

The IG findings in the report surprised many. When it was issued in July, members of a newly formed Black officers organization said they didn’t realize the problem in the process was retaining candidates, not persuading them that policing was a viable option for Black residents in the first place.

Learning this would help the organization refocus its efforts on eliminating “systemically-biased processes,” the organization said.

Diversity success in Los Angeles

In Los Angeles, the police department’s diversity now matches the makeup of the city, officials there said.

Made up of about 9,000 officers, LAPD — which has its own well-known struggles with issues around race — is about 50% Hispanic or Latino, 29% white, 9% Black with less than 10% of other races. The city of Los Angeles is 26% white, 49% Hispanic or Latino, 9% Black and 15% Asian.

The Chicago Police Department by comparison is 47% white, 29% Hispanic and 20% Black, while the city is about 33% non-Hispanic white, 29% Hispanic or Latino and 30% Black.

And LAPD is working to increase the diversity of the department even further, said that police department’s Captain Aaron McCraney, commanding officer of the recruitment and employment division, hoping to address future attrition and to mend relationships and build trust of police within communities of color,

LAPD efforts to diversify has included partnering with a city innovation team to analyze the department’s recruitment and hiring strategies, officials said.

The innovation team helped LAPD create a social media recruitment campaign, and started sending candidates texts and emails encouraging them to continue through the lengthy application process, which is similar to Chicago’s.

They also helped the department improve and digitize how they collect data and analyze it in order to more easily keep track of how well candidates move through the hiring process, McCraney said.

The department is constantly looking at hiring guidelines, he said, to ensure they are unbiased, equitable and not outdated.

Some of the changes the department has made include being more lenient about finances and debt, McCraney said.

“These are always things that we would want to take a look at, analyze and make a determination,” he said. “Is this something, is the person just being irresponsible? Or is it life occurrences that put them in this situation that if they had the means that they would, they would carry themselves in a responsible manner.”

In Chicago, Talley said the department’s new efforts will include a hiring expo in November specifically for women, Talley said.

The department has also moved its initial test online, creating more opportunities for people to join. The test used to be in-person only and was available twice a year.

Chicago police Superintendent David Brown

Chicago police Superintendent David Brown addresses the a class of Chicago Police recruits at the CPD Education and Training Academy in Chicago on Oct. 13, 2020.

Since she started leading the new team, Talley has reached out to community organizations to set up information sessions for recruitment.

“We will be focusing on our Black communities, along with other underrepresented groups, our Asian community, our female population,” she said. “All of our underrepresented groups we will be focusing on.”

Consent decree forcing change

CPD is under increased pressure to diversify its 12,000-strong force while under a federally mandated consent decree to improve the city’s policing practices.

Deputy Inspector for Public Safety General Deborah Witzburg, when reached last week about the IG report, reiterated the need for the department membership to reflect the city population, and not only because both city leaders and the reform process demand it.

Witzburg said a separate examination by her office shows that Black department members are expected to be retiring due to their age at a disproportionate rate in the coming years. This only increases the importance of successfully recruiting Black officers, she said.

“We find ourselves in a place not only where there are racially disparate (recruitment numbers), it’s the backdrop of a changing department demographic,” Witzburg said. “There is a looming demographic cliff, where black members of the department are retiring at a disproportionately rapid rate.”

Experts have said having a diverse police department is about more than just reflecting a city’s population. Research shows diversity within police departments can help shift the way police interact with communities.

In a study published in February in the journal Science, researchers found that: “Relative to white officers, Black and Hispanic officers make far fewer stops and arrests, and they use force less often, especially against Black civilians.” Researchers also found that female officers use force less often than male officers.

The researchers looked at Chicago as a case study and linked demographic information with “time-stamped, geolocated records of the same officers’ decisions to stop, arrest and use force against” people.

Black officers made fewer stops for “suspicious behavior” and made fewer drug arrests, the data found.

“Our data show these enforcement disparities are predominantly focused on relatively minor crimes, not violent offenses, suggesting little trade-off in terms of public safety,” the researchers wrote.

Out of Chicago

Today, Davis lives with her two daughters, a one-year-old and an eight-year-old in a townhome in Calumet City.

She decided to leave Chicago after her plan to join CPD didn’t work out.

Her attempt to wear a police star affected her in many ways, she said. She would have liked her daughters to be closer in age, for example, but noted she had paused growing her family while she went through the police hiring process.

Her new community is quiet. An older neighbor tends to her garden and her girls have an open patio area behind the house to play.

She said she does still commute into the city, continuing to work a job with the postal service.

She still has her frustrations about what happened, and that has included watching CPD and other departments struggle with recent excessive-force cases.

Controversial episodes such as after the police murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis — and the ensuing community eruptions — have weighed on her, Davis said. She said she wonders how those scenarios would have played out if police departments were more racially diverse.

“You just look at the different scenarios of things and say it could’ve been different if we had more good people,” Davis said. “Just thinking of people that they disqualified, there were genuinely good people, and they put these people that were bad people on the street.”

Davis thinks more people like her, who grew up in low-income neighborhoods, might be more understanding and calm while policing similar communities. She wishes her mistakes from when she was 19 years old could have been forgiven, she said.

“I grew up in what people call the hood, you know, so I kinda know what goes on,” Davis said. “I can relate with people and kind of defuse situations.”

Tribune reporter Annie Sweeney contributed to this story

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