Vallas: Chicago Police overtime cost $126M, plus cost of burn-out

Vallas: Chicago Police overtime cost $126M, plus cost of burn-out

One way to “defund the police” is by not hiring officers – a strategy supported by many in Chicago Mayor Brandon Johnson’s camp. The problem is, failing to hire more officers is backfiring. It leads to higher costs, some of which are very hard to count but easy to see.

To date Chicago has spent $126 million on police overtime in 2023, according to a WTTW analysis of city records. This is ahead of last year, when the city spent a record $210 million on police overtime. The bump is because police strength is down by more than 1,700 since before former Mayor Lori Lightfoot took office. There are currently over 1,000 police vacancies, and the city has no strategy for filling them.

Fewer officers is a major factor in why there’s been an over 50% drop in annual arrests since 2019 and an abysmal clearance rate of only 5% for nonfatal shootings with arrests. The lack of officers is directly to blame for the dramatic increase in the number of high-priority 911 calls for which the Chicago Police Department did not have a squad car available to respond. Chicagoans implicitly know there is a severe officer shortage.

To Johnson’s supporters who believe they can defund the police by not filling police vacancies, think about it: the hidden costs are eating the savings. Last year, police overtime cost the city over $210 million – over 50% more than was paid in 2021, and double what the city budgeted. Plus, the remaining officers are seeing their effectiveness undermined and are being demoralized by a work schedule that regularly cancels days off and extends work shifts without warning.

Right now, the city has no plan for rebuilding police strength. A plan must both slow the exodus of officers and make being a CPD officer attractive again. It would require new CPD leadership that has the confidence of the rank and file, that will institute a humane and predictable work schedule and that showcases public support for the police by the mayor’s office. Those are needed before an aggressive recruitment strategy to quickly fill the ranks can succeed.

Such a strategy can include:

• Providing CPD hiring testing twice a month online and running two training classes that will run day and night to maximize the output of new officers.

• Allowing officers who have transferred to other police departments to return, treating them like officers returning from a leave of absence.

• Incentivizing retired CPD officers with investigatory experience to return to serve as analysts to help detectives close cases and to staff a legitimate program to protect witnesses and victims.

• Streamlining the process for qualified and experienced police officers to transfer to CPD from other police departments, locally and out of state.

• Aggressively recruiting members from the military and allowing testing online for service members who are on military bases and serving overseas.

• Waiving the residency requirement for new recruits, until they are off their probationary status.

• Creating a “Chicago Police Reserve” modeled after the program in the Los Angeles Police Department. Former CPD officers who are now firefighters or hold other city jobs would be invited to be part of the reserve, as would former and current officers from other police departments. They would be available for emergencies, special events and in a crisis.

Over the longer term, the CPD can create a permanent pipeline of diversified, high-quality recruits who are drawn from the communities they will serve by partnering with the city’s six public high school military academies, 37 ROTC programs and strengthening the Chicago Police and Firefighter Training Academy high school programs to include private school students citywide.

Restoring police strength must be accompanied by a policing strategy that assigns more than the 54% of officers the City Inspector General shows are assigned to the city’s local police districts. Priority must be given to restoring local police beat integrity so high-priority 911 calls have cars available when calls come in. The city should also use money from the Chicago Transit Authority’s poorly paid, poorly trained and unarmed private security system to fund more Chicago Police officers.

Taking these steps would help retain officers and expand the size and quality of the pool of new and returning officers. Chicagoans know there is a severe shortage of officers, and it is hitting those least able to cope. A 2019 Gallup poll showed 68% of adults living in Chicago’s low-income neighborhoods want an increased police presence.

There can be no compromising on either officer numbers or quality if all Chicago neighborhoods are to made safe.

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