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Riverside, other suburbs struggling with anti-cop sentiment in recruiting, keeping officers

Tom Weitzel, the police chief in the west suburb, says last year his department hit a low for police recruiting. And he’s worried about a big rise in the number of retirements this year.

Riverside Police Chief Tom Weitzel.
Riverside Police Chief Tom Weitzel.
Riverside Police Department

Riverside is just two miles west of Chicago, but its tree-lined streets and Victorian homes seemed a world away from the anti-police protests that brought downtown to a standstill and the looting that ravaged businesses.

Yet police departments in Riverside and other suburbs are struggling with the same negative view of cops that set off protests in Chicago and across America.

Now, towns like Riverside are preparing for a rise in police retirements because some officers don’t want to be cops anymore. And those same towns are having more difficulty than ever recruiting young people to become police officers.

Tom Weitzel, the police chief in Riverside, an upscale town of 9,000 people, said he thinks the incident that sparked the protests — the killing of George Floyd, who was Black, by a white Minneapolis cop who knelt on Floyd’s neck last May — was a crime. But he said the entire police profession is being unfairly accused of engaging in such misconduct. He said that has made it less appealing for some officers and many who might consider becoming a cop.

Weitzel said he was shocked last year when people applied, passed the written exam, got an interview, then withdrew, one person saying in a letter that “law enforcement wasn’t for them anymore.”

“I have never had that happen,” said Weitzel, the chief in Riverside since 2008.

Riverside has 18 officers, including Weitzel. A sergeant retired last year, and Weitzel said he anticipates a “significant number” of veterans will leave by this summer.

“Officers have expressed that they will probably retire earlier than they anticipated,” he said. “That would be a huge hit. Other suburbs are concerned about the same issue.”

But only 62 people applied to become Riverside police officers last year, the fewest in more than four decades. After tests and interviews, only 14 made the eligibility list.

In a normal year, more than 200 would have applied, and 30 to 60 would have made the list.

Last year, the Police Executive Research Forum surveyed more than 200 police chiefs across the country and found big-city departments and midsized departments with 50 to 249 officers were most likely to report big increases in retirements last year.

The police chiefs in Madison, Wisconsin, and Asheville, North Carolina, told the Police Executive Research Forum they were dealing with large numbers of retirements and resignations. More than 30 officers of Asheville’s 240 cops resigned last year through September. That didn’t include retirements. Police Chief David Zach has blamed “very vocal” opposition to law enforcement following Floyd’s death.

Cities like Chicago and New York have seen big increases in retirements. In Chicago, 560 officers retired in 2020 in a department that had about 13,100 sworn officers as of March — about 15% more retiring than during the previous year, when the number of retirements rose by nearly 30%.

Officials say the retirements are putting a strain on police pension systems, recruiting and budgets as police departments are forced to spend more money on overtime.