Vallas: Chicago has too few police, pays too much in police overtime

Vallas: Chicago has too few police, pays too much in police overtime

Chicago's violent crime is up. A record $300 million was spent on police overtime last year. It's simple: too few cops leads to too much crime and requires a very wasteful, inefficient fix. Chicago needs more officers on patrol.

The latest police overtime numbers show Chicago’s police officer vacancies and 833 cut police positions are hurting the city in more ways than expected.

The city spent a record $300 million on police overtime last year, the CBS News Data Team reported. Chicago Police clocked a shocking 4.1 million hours of overtime in 2023, compared to an overage of 1.4 million hours in past years. The $300 million spent on police overtime in 2023 was 40% higher than in 2022 and almost three times the $100 million budget for police overtime.

That trend is continuing into 2024, with the summer just getting started and the Democratic National Convention coming to town.

The 2024 fiscal year’s budget again allocated just $100 million for overtime. It will again fall far short of what’s needed, especially as Mayor Brandon Johnson moves to eliminate positions and transition 400 remaining police vacancies into civilian positions. This will cause CPD to resort to their traditional method of addressing excess overtime expenditures: slowing the filling of vacancies. And the cycle continues.

The historic increase in overtime has come as violent crime is at a six-year high.

It is indisputable that there is a direct link between the number of police officers and violent crime, particularly murders. Chicago’s most violent year on record was 1992, when there were well below 12,000 officers. There were 940 murders. As police strength was built up to a historic high of 13,500 officers and was maintained at that level, the number of murders fell almost every year. In 2014 murders reached a historic low of 429.

In 2023, almost 80% of those murdered were Black. Black Chicagoans are 20 times more likely to be murdered, and Hispanic Chicagoans nearly five times more likely to be a homicide victim than their white counterparts. Low-income families are harmed most by these policies.

The same link between police strength and murders was seen during Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s administration. With murders at a modern-day low, he moved to balance his budget his first term by not filling police vacancies. Murders jumped to over 760 in 2016. In his second term he restored police positions and rapidly filled vacancies, raising police strength to 13,400. Murders fell to 506 in 2019, the year Lightfoot took office.

The failure to provide enough officers creates a catch-22 situation as police shortages contribute to increased crime, increased crime requires additional police coverage, officer shortages require frequent extended shifts and cancellation of days off that reduces officers’ effectiveness. The police will pay more in overtime than they would have paid filling vacancies or adding more police positions.

Supporters’ desire to reap the financial benefits of shifting money from the police budget to their programs simply has no merit. The fact is, even with the unprecedented overtime costs more than consuming any savings from not filling police vacancies, total current spending on CPD is less than 12% of the city budget. Almost five times as much money is actually spent, not just budgeted, on Chicago Public Schools than is spent on the Chicago Police.

Instead of eliminating positions, Chicago should use the funds that would have gone to overtime to restore police strength to the 2019 level when there were almost 13,400 officers. Returning to overtime expenditure levels of 2019 and before would more than cover the costs of those officers. This would ensure each police beat had officers available to respond to 911 calls in real time and would fully restore the detective ranks.

The city could also improve public safety on its mass transit system by taking what the CTA spends on private, untrained and unarmed transit security teams and using it to hire another 300 Chicago police officers dedicated, selected and trained for transit security. This would extend community policing to public transportation by having enough police officers to monitor public transit stations and to patrol platforms.

If you want to know why crime went down in the 1990s, it’s not hard to figure out. Recognition of the need to keep dangerous and habitual felons from returning to the streets required prosecutors and police who understood crime rates are a function of expectations about the rule of law. Setting those expectations requires acting against quality-of-life crimes, which tells criminals laws will be enforced. But that requires having enough police officers to provide a constant presence, respond to calls in real time and investigate crimes.

A 2019 Gallup poll showed 68% of adults living in Chicago’s low-income neighborhoods wanted an increased police presence. The majority of the public didn’t fear the police but feared the police couldn’t protect them, according to the very survey mandated by the 2019 Consent Decree negotiated by the Illinois Attorney General’s Office and the City of Chicago to institute “comprehensive reforms of the Chicago Police Department.”

Yet Johnson and his supporters can’t help themselves. Their “defund the police” dogma is harming residents while not saving the city money for the things they’d rather fund.

Chicago must end this cycle. It can do so by adding permanent police officer positions and restoring the CPD to the levels it needs to keep Chicagoans safe.

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