Three months into the job, Skokie Police Chief Barnes focuses on communicating with public, recruiting officers

After Jesse Barnes graduated from Northern Illinois University in 2000 and gravitated to his first job with the Skokie Police Department at age 22, his goal was to become a detective. He went farther: after nearly 24 years with the department, he was sworn in as chief of police in January.

Barnes said his first position in the department was patrol officer and evidence technician, then he worked his way up the ranks through various units involving investigations. When he made it to detective, he became interested in taking more senior roles in the police department.

“Everything in law enforcement is a team effort,” Barnes said in a March interview with Pioneer Press. “I couldn’t do what I do without the team.”

After two to three months on the job as chief, Barnes said he is focusing on communication with the public as well as recruiting qualified employees to the department, since most police departments are no longer getting the number of applicants they received years ago.

In terms of communicating with the public, Barnes said the department listens to residents’ complaints, such as drivers speeding past children waiting at a bus stop.

“That’s their priority so we make it ours,” he said.

When officers stop drivers whizzing past that bus stop, they inform them community members have complained that cars are not slowing or stopping, Barnes said, as a way of communicating and emphasizing community priorities.

The department has hired a recruitment officer to recruit both new recruits and lateral transfers, Barnes said, with the latter meaning police officers working in other departments who could transfer to Skokie.

To aid those new police officers, Barnes said the police department has implemented changes to help both civilians and first responders. Barnes said the department practices a peer support program, which allows officers to have mental health check-ins with each other and a mental health specialist if they wish to see one.

The department has between 110 and 115 sworn officers, which include patrol officers up to the rank of chief, Barnes said. Other employees include communications operators and administrative staff.

Barnes succeeds former Chief Brian Baker, who joined the department in 1994, became chief in November 2020 and retired in December 2023. Prior to Baker, former Chief Anthony Scarpelli spent 38 years with the department, retiring in 2020.

Barnes said he didn’t know he wanted to be a police officer when he was growing up, but wanted to be in law enforcement, like his high school football and wrestling coaches. Earlier in his career, he was also able to give back to youth and coach, something he sees as a trend for younger officers, who start out working night shifts and coach in their free time.

Barnes said the department also interacts with youth through the Explorer program, a program meant for young teens to learn about law enforcement. Many of the Explorers assist in numerous Village of Skokie events throughout the year, including the Festival of Cultures, Fourth of July Parade and Backlot Bash, according to the Village of Skokie website.

During his career in the police department, Barnes was on the mission team, joined the investigation team, where he was a detective during the night shift, and was an investigative sergeant and patrol sergeant before becoming a commander.

During his time in the investigative unit, Barnes served on the North Regional Major Crimes Task Force, or NORTAF, a unit created by the collaboration of 13 police departments in the northern suburbs to investigate serious crimes, like murder. According to Barnes, NORTAF members meet to investigate specific crimes, which gives them the benefit of members’ specific expertise, which is greater than that which could be found in any one department.

“NORTAF is a fantastic resource — a group that works together regularly, and has a ton of training,” Barnes said. “We have a good relationship with them, and always feel that (when they investigate a case), the investigation is in good hands.”

After serving as commander, Barnes was promoted to Deputy Chief of the Administrative division and to Deputy Chief of the Field division. He held both positions for a year before Skokie Village Manager John Lockerby appointed him chief.

Over his more than two decades in the department, Barnes said Skokie has been and remains a very diverse suburb, and that the department has officers who can respond in many languages, including the three they encounter most commonly — Arabic, Assyrian and Spanish. In addition, some officers also speak Tagalog, Polish, Korean and Vietnamese.