The cities of Champaign, Urbana and Mahomet have been dealing with staffing shortages in their police departments since the pandemic, but some departments’ vacancies began before 2020 alongside the rise of national concerns about police misconduct.
Champaign, in particular, has been struggling with police officer vacancies for several years. In February last year, City Manager Dorothy David called the vacancies a “staffing crisis.” The department even began offering a $20,000 bonus to experienced police officers who are hired and remain employed for at least three years. The incentive period ends on December 31 this year.
A review of five police departments in the county found dwindling department staffing over the years, with signs of some rebounding beginning last year. The police departments of Fisher, Gifford, Homer and Ludlow did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
Champaign Police Department employment data shows, since 2017, twice the number of patrol officers who left the department resigned instead of retired. The data obtained via a Freedom of Information Act request shows 29 patrol officers resigned while 14 patrol officers retired. Most resignations occurred during or after 2020. The data also showed two officers died and one was dismissed.
The number of Champaign Police Department’s patrol officers, not all officers, decreased in four consecutive years: 57 in 2018, 56 in 2019, 55 in 2020 and 54 in 2021. By the end of 2022, the department rebounded to 66 patrol officers and has continued to hire this year up to 70 as of October 12.
The University of Illinois Police Department hasn’t seen the same shortage issues. Patrick Wade, senior director of strategic communications for the department, said they are well aware of the overall problems.
“I’ve only been here nine years,” Wade said. “But I would say this is one of the most difficult periods we’ve seen. “It’s been really tough nationwide recruiting police officers lately.”
Public records show the starting salary for an entry-level police officer is:
- About $71,000 in Champaign and increases after a 15-month probationary period
- About $70,000 in Urbana and increases after a 6-month probationary period
- About $51,000 in Mahomet
- About $46,000 at Parkland College
- About $69,000 at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
The University of Illinois Police Department reached as low as 58 officers during 2016, 26 officers fewer than the maximum of 74 positions. This was the only year in a seven-year period from 2013 to 2020 that the staff was not sitting at 65. Today, they are sitting at the maximum allotment of 74 officers.
Mahomet Police Department has lost one employee per year since 2020. Administrative Assistant Tara McCann said the department had 11 employees in 2020, 10 in 2021, 9 in 2022 and only 8 this year.
Parkland College Chief of Police Troy Daniels said the college consistently had 15 police officers until 2020, when it dropped to 14 officers. As of October this year, it has 13 police officers employed with 1 officer vacancy.
The Urbana Police Department saw a decrease in employment each year from 2020 to 2022. The department had 58 officers in 2020 and fell to 52 last year — totaling 7 vacancies when the department was authorized to have 59 officers.
Former Police Chief Bryant Seraphin confirmed a staff shortage in 2021. The Urbana City Council voted to reduce the police budget by 2% in 2020, about the equivalent of one officer.
Urbana is currently offering two $10,000 bonuses for new officers hired through a lateral transfer, and two $5,000 bonuses to entry-level police officers. The period to receive bonuses began on February 1 this year and runs until June 30, 2024.
Social issues exacerbated pandemic-related shortages
Joe Lamberson, assistant to the chief of police for community services for Champaign’s department, said he believes the job of being a police officer doesn’t seem as appealing as it once did.
“Policing is not as glamorous as it used to be,” Lamberson said. “And so what we’ve seen with that is a reduced number of applicants.”
Within Champaign, the pandemic appeared to have been a big reason why there was a police shortage.
Lamberson said the pandemic changed the way police conducted their everyday activities. For example, if a traffic stop wasn’t deemed important, officers were often instructed to not follow through with them.
“There were general orders that you were to only initiate traffic stops if someone did something egregious,” Lamberson said. “Because the reality was if you got sick, you could take that home, you could bring that back to the department.”
But Wade, with the University’s department, attributes two other factors to the reason why police departments are seeing a decrease in interest when it comes to recruiting.
“A lot of it has to do with everything that police departments across the country have been facing in terms of social issues,” Wade said. “I think there’s just fewer people these days who want to be police officers.”
The other reason has to do with the current financial state of the country.
“Number two is actually, I think the economy is better,” Wade said. “When you have more positions open, I think fewer people are applying for that police officer position because there’s more opportunities available elsewhere.”
Even though the university’s department hasn’t been struggling to keep employees as much as Champaign’s or Mahomet’s, Wade said it’s still had challenges in the past 10 years.
“Five to 10 years ago we were seeing really big candidate pools,” Wade said. “Our candidate pools are getting smaller, and that doesn’t mean we’re not getting quality candidates, but we are needing to find more alternative avenues to hire police officers.”
Despite the current 10-year high in employment for the program, it hasn’t been smooth sailing for the department.
When Champaign was at the peak of its shortage, it reached out to the university’s department for assistance. They started patrolling an area of campus town that was previously served by the Champaign police.
“When the Champaign Police Department started experiencing their shortage, they came to us and said, ‘hey you guys are already patrolling some of these areas on campus town that are off campus, you already responded, you help us out on calls there already, can you just kind of take this area over?’” Wade said.
This agreement between the two departments started in October 2022 and will expire in October 2024. Depending on the situation next year, both departments will assess the situation and decide whether or not to continue the agreement and pick up a third year.
Due to the agreement, a lot of officers have been working more hours than before, which not all of them are used to doing.
“Another thing police officers do is they work a lot overtime,” Wade said. “They work special events, special details, and when you don’t have the number of people in a department that you want, that means the people that you do have are working more overtime to fill.”
Wade has a few suggestions to combat the shortages in police employment. He said it starts with the strategies involving recruiting.
“I think part of it is just being more creative in how we attract people to the position,” Wade said. “Making sure that police departments are creating an environment where people want to work there.”
On top of that, he said he believes departments need to be better listeners to what their communities truly need from the police.
“I would also just make sure that we are being responsive to the needs of our communities,” Wade said. “I think that’s part of where it’s coming from is people’s current perception of police departments, true or not, the perception right now is not great.”