The officers who patrol the Chicago’s 11th Police District face a daunting challenge. The district, which is centered around Garfield Park on the city’s West Side, has the highest murder rate in the city, and it’s rising fast. By late August the district already had more murders than in all of 2015, when it led the city with 48 homicides.
The officers of the 11th District stand out in another way. They are the youngest and least experienced police officers of any district in Chicago.
The average officer in the 11th joined the force 10 years ago; over a third of the district’s officers have less than five years on the force. Meanwhile, most veteran officers with patrol experience in the late 1990s — the last time Chicago’s murder rate was as high as today — work far from Garfield Park. Half a dozen miles to the north one of the city’s safest districts, Jefferson Park, has only three officers with under 10 years of experience. Over half the patrol officers are 20-year veterans.
The divide between the police officers who patrol Garfield Park and Jefferson Park reflect divisions that hold true across Chicago and in police departments across the country, where high-crime areas are frequently staffed with rookies while the veterans flock to safer districts. Policing experts say that the practice is commonplace, since senior officers usually get priority when they ask to transfer, though Chicago’s union-mandated transfer process exacerbates the situation, tying the hands of commanders in deciding how to staff their districts. And while some say that the divide has its benefits, citing younger officers’ energy and ability to connect with at-risk youth, there are also significant risks—to the safety of citizens and officers, and to police departments that already struggle to forge lasting connections in many communities.
“You’re putting your least experienced officers in the situations that really call for the most experience and best judgement,” says Sam Walker, a professor and policing expert at the University of Nebraska. According to Walker, younger officers are more likely to engage in overly aggressive policing, particularly if not given proper training.