Champaign police billboard

In the summer of 2020, the Champaign Police Department advertised openings for officers on billboards around the city.

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CHAMPAIGN — Against the backdrop of what is stacking up to be one of the most violent years in its history, Champaign is doing its best to fill its police department with peacemakers — from the top down.

While the search continues for a new chief, the city is also looking for about 25 people willing to step up to support that person.

In the last two years, 28 officers with experience ranging from a few months to 28 years have left, many for retirement, others for different job opportunities. Two others died — one killed in the line of duty and another felled by cancer.

The department is authorized to have 125 officers to protect about 88,000 people in the state’s 10th-largest city. There are about 100 officers doing that job right now, according to Sgt. Matt Crane, who oversees training and development.

“There’s no doubt there are less people applying to be a police officer,” he said. “That’s a national trend.

“It’s a tough time. Every labor market is stretched thin. Law enforcement is evolving and people have a lot of different ideas,” he added. “We have a long, in-depth (hiring) process which doesn’t lend itself to quick decisions. But that is good because you don’t want bad police officers.”

At a study session Tuesday, city council members will continue their discussion about how to streamline and improve the hiring process to get those vacant positions filled faster with the right people.

One thing that’s already being done to lure experienced officers from other departments is the offer of a $20,000 incentive to those hired prior to July 1, 2022, who remain with the department for at least three years.

The salary for an experienced officer ranges from $70,529 to $76,269 a year, while entry-level officers earn in the neighborhood of $64,780, with a raise to $70,529 after the successful completion of 15 months of probation.

Another step approved in late September, which takes effect next month, is continuous testing.

Interested applicants will be able to test for the position monthly instead of the previous pilot model of four times per year, which replaced the even older system of testing once a year.

“It’s a huge thing because if you recruit and you meet someone who wants to be a cop and you tell them you can’t apply for three months, they will find somewhere else to go,” Crane said. “We have to be current and have continuous testing to be competitive with other departments.”

Taking the written test is but one of the steps in a multi-step hiring process.

Additionally, the council agreed to transfer certain responsibilities from the Board of Fire and Police Commissioners to the city manager to shorten the hiring process, including interviews and approval of a final recruitment eligibility list.

To allay the council’s concerns about eliminating the board interviews, the city plans to recruit even more community volunteers from minority groups and different backgrounds than they now have to sit on the “chief’s panel” to help interview applicants.

Among the ideas also being proposed to the council is to offer preference points — a way to move up on the hiring list — not only for military service and law-enforcement-related education but also for other types of degrees and for living within the city.

The rationale for awarding points for degrees other than just those focused on public safety is to “build a police force that has a more diverse set of educational backgrounds and skills,” according to a staff memo.

As for living in the city, the memo suggests those officers who do “may be better equipped to establish and maintain strong relationships within the community.” The Urbana, Mattoon and Springfield police departments award preference points in hiring for residency.

A recent study by CU-CitizenAccess showed that nearly 4 out of 5 Champaign and Urbana police officers live outside the communities they are paid to protect.

Lastly, the city intends early next year to hire a consultant to help its human-resources department determine if it has the appropriate people doing the psychological assessments on officer candidates.

“Beyond the administration of pre-employment assessments, a qualified vendor should be able to inform the city on best practices for the use of bias assessments and racial-attitudes measurements in an employment context,” the memo said, whether it’s developing the right interview questions or setting up training to alleviate bias in police work.

Reporter

Mary Schenk is a reporter covering police, courts and breaking news at The News-Gazette. Her email is mschenk@news-gazette.com, and you can follow her on Twitter (@schenk).

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