Standing before nearly 100 newly hired Chicago police recruits on their first day at the academy, Cmdr. Daniel Godsel issued a stern warning about the next six months of training.
“It’s going to be very difficult, physically and mentally,” he told the recruits last month. “You’re going to find conditions at the academy strict and demanding. We’re gonna hold each of you to the very highest of standards, and we will not tolerate anything short of excellence.”
Yet the Police Department’s own numbers show that the recruits have little reason to worry about washing out.
In fact, all but a relative handful of trainees graduate from the academy and become cops, raising concerns about how rigorous and selective the department is in inducting new officers.
Over a recent four-year period, the academy graduated more than 97 percent of its recruits, according to department figures obtained by the Chicago Tribune through a public records request.
By comparison, a U.S. Department of Justice study of some 600 police academies across the country found about 86 percent of recruits graduated between 2011 and 2013.
And the rate of failure is even higher at some big-city departments. In Los Angeles, about a quarter of recruits don’t make the cut, largely because they fail tests or leave voluntarily, according to city records.
Chicago police officials defended the low attrition rate, saying that aspiring recruits undergo a “stringent” vetting process before being admitted to the academy “to ensure that the best candidates are appointed to train at the academy.”
In addition, spokesman Frank Giancamilli said the department is revising its training curriculum for recruits and in recent months increased academy staffing and stepped up monitoring of instructors.
The high graduation rate, however, backs up the Justice Department’s recent report on the Chicago Police Department that alleged that academy officials failed to weed out subpar recruits while providing sloppy, outdated instruction. While lacking specific figures, the report said the department has known its attrition rate was “‘very close to zero’ and thus well below normal levels present in police academies across the country.”
The quality of officer selection and training has taken on added significance as Mayor Rahm Emanuel seeks to add 1,000 new cops over the next two years to a police force plagued by misconduct and excessive force. Even as changes to the curriculum are still in development, the Police Department is pushing large classes of recruits through an academy that the Justice Department has criticized for producing cops who are dangerously unprepared.
“A (near) zero attrition rate tells us that CPD is not taking seriously its responsibility to screen recruits,” said Craig Futterman, a University of Chicago law professor and frequent department critic. “It should come as no surprise that the department has enabled its officers to commit a pattern and practice of abuse against citizens.”
Retired Deputy Chief Howard Lodding, who led the academy from 2009 to 2013, said he could not explain why the department’s attrition rate is so much lower than those of some other academies, but he said he and his staff kicked out recruits when necessary.
“Just because you lose people doesn’t make you a better police department,” he said. “You’re not there to fail people — you’re there to ensure that they have the skills necessary to go on and do that job.”
Emanuel continues to revamp police discipline, supervision and training almost 16 months after he was forced into action by the uproar over a video of a white police officer shooting black teenager Laquan McDonald 16 times.
Uncertainty looms, however, as to how ambitious City Hall will continue to be about changing the department now that Attorney General Jeff Sessions has signaled he is unlikely to seek court-ordered reforms in Chicago, possibly leaving Emanuel with almost complete control over what steps are taken. The political climate changed in recent months after President Donald Trump was elected in part on a law-and-order platform. Major protests over police abuse have largely died down, while runaway gun violence remains a stubborn problem in Chicago.
Emanuel has recently stuck to a largely pro-police message, and Superintendent Eddie Johnson has backed off enacting a more restrictive use of force policy he floated months earlier that upset some cops.
As Emanuel has sought to boost officer morale and shore up the department, waves of new officers have entered the academy.
If history is any guide, almost all of them will end up on city streets with badges and guns.
Between July 2012 and April 2016, about 60 of some 2,000 prospective officers who entered the Chicago academy failed to graduate — a 97 percent success rate, the city’s numbers show.
By contrast, in Los Angeles, about 450 out of some 1,750 recruits failed to graduate between 2012 and mid-2016, records show. That means that the L.A. Police Department, with its graduation rate of about 74 percent, washed out about eight times as many recruits as Chicago.
It is hard to assess all the differences between the two departments’ academies, but it is clear that various elements of training trip up vastly more recruits in Los Angeles than Chicago.
For example, between 2013 and mid-2016, 63 recruits flunked the Los Angeles police academy after failing firearms testing — dozens more than the number who didn’t graduate from Chicago’s academy for any reason during the same period.
Los Angeles’ shooting tests are much more extensive than those in Chicago. Los Angeles recruits have to shoot in low light and in simulated combat conditions, with varying accuracy standards. California’s state standards holds that officers have to fire more than 250 rounds in testing.
Chicago follows state standards for firearms testing, and a recruit must shoot 50 rounds total at an 8.5-by-14-inch target from 7, 15 and 25 yards, hitting at least 70 percent within varying time limits.
An academy’s failure rate could be swayed by its admission standards and screening practices, but it is difficult to assess differences across academies. Chicago, though, requires applicants who are not military veterans to have taken 60 semester hours of college, typically the equivalent of two years, while Los Angeles requires just a high school diploma or GED.
On paper, the departments’ other screening practices are substantially similar. Both require physical fitness tests, background checks and psychological examinations, among other measures, though the details of those screening practices vary.
Other big-city police academies also posted graduation rates several points lower than Chicago’s in recent years.
New York City’s academy graduated about 93.4 percent of recruits between January 2012 and mid-2016, the city’s numbers show. Given the department’s size, that meant about 700 recruits didn’t graduate. New York police declined to provide further details on why recruits fell short.
Houston had nearly the same graduation rate during the same approximate period.
Giancamilli noted that Chicago’s police academy provides recruits with hundreds of hours of training beyond the state’s minimum standards.
Maria Haberfeld, a professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York City who has studied police academies, said that in the past 15 years or so she’d seen more effort put toward recruitment and selection in Los Angeles and New York than in Chicago.
In New York and Los Angeles, she said, “the expectations are higher.”
Two of Illinois’ five other police academies reported attrition similar to Chicago’s. College of DuPage’s Suburban Law Enforcement Academy and the Southwestern Illinois Police Academy in Belleville both reported graduation rates between 97 and 98 percent. Two others notched rates lower than Chicago’s but above 90 percent.
Even if Chicago’s low attrition rate is not unique, it is still a problem, some experts said.
The bottom 10 percent of any class is likely to be “trouble,” said Peter Moskos, a former Baltimore police officer who is now an associate professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice. But departments such as Chicago’s don’t weed out recruits for the same reasons other institutions hesitate to fire people — to avoid the headache and lawsuits, Moskos said.
Futterman said the department has neglected to screen out bad recruits as part of a broader pattern of failing to ensure officers do quality work.
“In terms of their training, their supervision, their monitoring, they get an ‘F’,” he said of the department.
Lodding said he couldn’t pinpoint the academy’s attrition rate during his period leading it, but he said the department weeded out problem recruits.
“If it was necessary, it was done. You can’t endanger the public,” he said. “It’s a job where people can take a person’s life and take their freedom. You don’t pass people just to pass people.”
The academy’s practices have taken on a heightened importance as the department trains waves of recruits.
By the end of 2018, Emanuel is seeking to expand the force to some 13,500 sworn officers. With retirements and departures, the department may need to hire more than 2,000 new officers in all to hit Emanuel’s goal.
He’s also trying to restrain surging — and politically damaging — gunfire on the South and West sides. Last year, the city exceeded 760 slayings and 4,300 people shot, huge jumps over 2015. The violence has continued at a similar pace so far in 2017.
The new recruits are going through academy training that the Justice Department hammered as outdated and undemanding. Federal authorities noted that many rookie cops didn’t understand even basic principles important to their work on the street.
“At the academy and during ride-alongs, our retained training law enforcement expert asked several (probationary police officers) to articulate when use of force would be justified in the field,” the report said. “Only one (officer) out of six came close to properly articulating the legal standard for use of force.”
Emanuel’s vow to revamp training extends even to the academy building itself; City Hall has announced plans to replace the current academy, a utilitarian hulk dedicated in 1976 on Jackson Boulevard near Racine Avenue. Prior to that location opening, Tribune archives show, Chicago police trained in a building so old it was used as a hospital during the Civil War.
City Hall has yet to announce a new site.
Last month, in addressing the department’s new hires on their first day as recruits at the academy, the mayor delivered a pep talk, vowing that the city would have their backs. Speaking just days after three children under 12 had been fatally shot, he also lamented the rising toll of gun violence. The recruits, he said, would play a crucial role in preventing more bloodshed.
“We’re gonna ask you to be the point of the spear as it relates to public safety,” he said.
Godsel’s message was more bracing, even if his warnings about the academy’s difficulty weren’t reinforced by its near-perfect graduation rate.
“You have to earn it,” he told the trainees. “That begins here today.”
Chicago Tribune’s Jennifer Smith Richards contributed.