Forest Park Mayor Anthony Calderone swore in Chicagoan Laura O’Donnell as a probationary police officer at the village council’s Aug. 14 meeting, but the addition still leaves the department three short of full strength, which is 38 sworn officers. 

O’Donnell will report to the Chicago Police Academy, Sept. 5, for 16 weeks of training, and if all goes well, she will join the department afterward for field training. 

Forest Park Police Chief Thomas Aftanas was careful to note that the level of law enforcement service has not suffered as a result of the understaffing, which dates back to 2015. There continues to be at least five officers patrolling at all times. Overtime hours and shifting staff from dedicated task forces, such as plain clothes drug enforcement, are used to fill the shortage. 

“I want to get the number up,” Aftanas said, noting that current staffing levels are not sustainable. “That’s what we are trying to do.”

O’Donnell’s appointment coincides with other personnel changes. One of the department’s current officers has announced his intention to retire in October. Davor Pavlovic, another recruit who had been sworn in as a probationary officer in March 2017, dropped out of the police academy after failing his physical. One officer, in the U.S. Army Reserves, is currently deployed on active duty. 

O’Donnell, who has been working for two years as a dispatcher for the Oak Lawn Police Department, attended the University of Iowa but left before completing her degree. 

“The whole goal is to become a police officer,” she said, before noting she was inspired to pursue a career in law enforcement by a great aunt who she said was in the first class to allow women at the Chicago Police Academy.

There is an extensive process for bringing on new officers, which can take more than one year to complete. Forest Park’s department, like other municipal forces, adheres to state law. Illinois requires departments to maintain an eligibility list of potential hires, even when no job openings exist. Forest Park’s list expired in earlier in August and O’Donnell was the last potential hire. The department administered a written test Aug. 19 to start the process of putting together another list. 

Aftanas said they had 53 applicants sign up for the test. The last time the test was administered, the department had over 90 applicants. 

He speculated that the drop in interest was partly because Chicago and the Illinois State Police are currently in a hiring phase. It’s possible changing national perceptions of police and law enforcement could explain the drop, too, he added. 

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 in past years. The hiring process includes several types of tests. These assessments can include mental aptitude, physical fitness, psychological examinations and even polygraph tests.

Interviews are also conducted by the village’s Police and Fire Commission, a three-member, mayor-appointed board that 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.