Village documents requested by the Forest Park Review show a municipal workforce in Forest Park dissimilar to the latest available community census data. Several departments, such as police and fire, are overwhelmingly staffed by white males. There are disparities in other groups, too, including maintenance workers and technicians, where a gender gap is particularly pronounced.
The demographic breakdown of Forest Park’s roughly 14,000 community members is about 50 percent white, 30 percent black or African-American, 10 percent Hispanic or Latino and 7 percent Asian, according to the most recent Census Bureau estimates. The documents show the village’s “Protective Service Workers,” including police and fire personnel, to be nearly 90 percent white males.
“It is important to reflect the community we serve,” said Police Chief Thomas Aftanas. “It is always an advantage.”
Still, Aftanas was careful to emphasize the extensive hiring process already in place, which can take more than one year to complete, and said his department must adhere to state law. Illinois requires departments to maintain an eligibility list of potential hires, even when no job openings exist.
Typically, a department will contract with a private company to help compile the list. Forest Park, for instance, has used Chicago-based Stanard and Associates. The hiring process includes rounds of several types of tests. These assessments can include mental aptitude, physical fitness, psychological examinations and even polygraph tests.
There are also interviews conducted by the village’s Police and Fire Commission, a three-member, mayor-appointed board which oversees the hiring process, as well as drug and medical screenings. In Forest Park, candidates with college degrees, prior law enforcement or military experience score additional points. Preference cannot be given to individuals from any particular racial, ethnic, religious, gender or sexual orientation group.
Although the Illinois Law Enforcement Training and Standards Board (ILESTB), a state agency established in the 1960s, mandates a minimum level of requirements — such as no felony convictions for sworn police officers — individual communities can establish their own additional qualifications, too. Forest Park, for instance, requires 60 credit hours from an accredited college or university and the successful completion of a background check.
Often a department’s operating budget will determine how extensive its hiring process is, according to Dennis Bowman, a professor of law enforcement and justice administration at Western Illinois University.
Bowman noted some departments have relaxed their educational standards in recent years in an effort to attract more applicants. Still, it can be difficult for police departments to compete with private sector employment opportunities, which typically offer a comparatively streamlined hiring process.
“A lot of potential applicants are grabbing jobs that are available quickly,” Bowman said. “It’s a challenge [but] I know the profession is working hard to improve.”
A handful of law enforcement officials and industry experts, including Chief Aftanas and Professor Bowman, all stressed that any efforts to improve department diversity must come during the front-end recruitment process.
“It’s a tough nut to crack,” Cora Beem, a manager of mandatory training at the ILETSB and a former police chief, said. “[But] if I was looking to diversify, I would cast a wide net.”
Advertising in minority communities, attending job fairs on college campuses and partnering with non-governmental organizations can all help build a diverse applicant pool, said Chief Tom Weitzel, neighboring Riverside’s top police official.
“We want dedicated, professional young men and women. We want diversity. We want men, women, African Americans, Hispanics, we want it all,” Weitzel said. “But what we most want is qualified candidates.”
Riverside denied the Review’s Freedom of Information request asking for the racial and ethnic demographic of its employees. But the village did provide documents showing just one female police officer on the 19-member force.
Chief Aftanas echoed Weitzel’s emphasis on community outreach and said his department sends notices to around 700 colleges and universities and posts employment opportunities on the popular online law enforcement job board, the Blue Line.
Dr. Kate Webster, Forest Park’s Diversity Commission chair, said the status quo must change and said she hopes the newly created seven-member body she leads can be part of any improvement in the village’s employee diversity.
“We can’t make any policy procedures,” Webster cautioned. “But what I think would be a viable way that the Diversity Commission can help would be providing support and guidance.”