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Police officer shortages crop up in central Illinois

Chief at a podium
Ryan Denham
Normal Police Chief Rick Bleichner said staff shortages are a hot topic of discussion among police agency heads in Illinois and around the country.
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The Normal Police Department is down between 13% and 20% in officers, depending on how you count available bodies. Some are still in training at the police academy but cannot yet patrol.

Police Chief Rick Bleichner said that is a historic high number of vacancies. A year ago there were just three open spots and those were intentionally vacant for budget reasons. Bleichner said it's not just an issue for the town.

"Some agencies had to pretty significantly modify their staffing models, force 12-hour shifts, and do things like that. We're obviously not at that point just yet. But that's a pretty common theme and it's not just Illinois, it's across the country," said Bleichner.

Bleichner said there are several reasons: a national workforce shortage that also affects government, private sector companies like Rivian and State Farm that are willing to pay more than government to fill their own slots, the retirement of the baby boomers, and anti-government and anti-police sentiment in the culture that can wear on officers and encourage some to leave the profession. He said there were nine vacancies about a decade ago. And he said there was a national workforce shortage at that time as well.

He said five of the vacancies are from specialty areas: the detective division, school resource officer, the vice unit, and things like that. He said Normal Police has intentionally left those vacant for now to avoid reducing patrol staff, though they will eventually be filled as new candidates come on board.

That means there are still fewer bodies and the same work load. Bleichner says they are doing more hirebacks, pulling from existing staffing and pay overtime, as needed.

He also said there is a plan to address the officer shortage but you can't put people back too quickly because there are limited resources to train the new officers and it's not a good idea to skimp on that.

For the first time Normal will recruit from other police agencies, Bleichner said. He said discussion is happening with the police union about that issue. Previously, candidates had to go through the entire hiring process. He said they want to offer incentives to officers who are willing to go to another organization. He said that will mean higher pay expenses, but a savings on training.

Some police agencies have had mixed results using that practice because the new department does not always have access to the full disciplinary record at the previous agency and there is a higher risk of getting someone who is not an optimum candidate or good performer. Bleichner acknowledged that could be an issue.

"That's one of the things we are aware of. We will lean on our background investigators. There are things to look for in personnel files. And although under state law things may be expunged for purposes of discipline, they don't go away. You can't just get rid of them or shred them under Illinois law and federal law," said Bleichner. "We would certainly look back on those to get an accurate history of the individual's performance and their past patterns."

He noted that record preservation measure went on the books as part of the police officer decertification act in 2015 and was strengthened in July when a new police reform bill passed the General Assembly and was signed by the Governor.

Many law enforcement agencies report fewer people are applying. Bleichner said that is true in Normal as well. In the hiring cycle last spring he said they had about 100 applicants. In the cycle that ended Friday the town had 80 police officer applications.

Bleichner said departments in the area and state are still finding qualified candidates, but fewer of them because the overall pool is smaller. He said that means they have to hire more often than the traditional two year cycle. That is more work, he acknowledged, but it also means the pool of those qualified is fresher. He said in the past the list got old and a substantial number of people on it had already found other jobs by the time a given department had a vacancy.

Bloomington police are also down a significant number of officers but proportionately less than Normal. The McLean County Sherriff's Department is at full staff. But Sheriff Jon Sandage says they have had more attrition than usual because deputies are leaving for larger agencies that pay more and have more opportunities for advancement.

Bleichner said staff shortages are the No. 1 topic of discussion among police agency heads in Illinois and around the country.

WGLT Senior Reporter Charlie Schlenker has spent more than three award-winning decades in radio. He lives in Normal with his family.
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