Vallas: How to boost Chicago Police Department strength, morale

Vallas: How to boost Chicago Police Department strength, morale

Mayor Brandon Johnson deserves much credit for approving a new Chicago Police Department contract that is generous and fair. Now comes the big question.

Mayor Brandon Johnson deserves much credit for approving a new Chicago Police Department contract that is generous and fair. His selection of a new police superintendent drawn from the ranks and well respected was another sign he has moved beyond the anti-police rhetoric of many of his supporters. Both will provide a big boost to morale and help improve police retention and recruitment.

Now comes the big question: Is the administration going to attempt to balance the budget by not filling police vacancies, or will it restore police strength?

While there is a slight increase in the actual police budget, it is driven largely by the annualizing of the police officer pay increases negotiated in the latest police contract. That said, what is appropriated is not always what is spent. Chicago mayors have been historically notorious for not filling vacancies to help cover budget shortfalls. With police vacancies hovering at 1,000 the past few years, the city has been saving hundreds of millions of dollars through attrition. Shortages in the number of police officers ultimately lead to greater overtime spending, which just topped $200 million for the year and partially offsets savings.

There are almost 1,000 police vacancies in the current police budget, while the total police officer count is almost 1,700 fewer than in 2019 when Mayor Lori Lightfoot took office. The impact is seen in the lack of police officers available to respond to 911 calls and an abysmal arrest rate. Arrest were made in fewer than 12% of all crimes in 2022; the arrests between 2019 and 2021 were down 50%.

The mayor’s police budget plan calls for hiring 398 positions, but offers no details of responsibilities or tasks. Based on comments by the mayor and others in his office, it appears civilians may fill more police vacancies. If that becomes the case, it would bring the actual number of police positions eliminated since 2019 to almost 1,000. So, what is the mayor trying to do? Does he have a plan for filling the remaining officer vacancies?

While there are many factors that contribute to the rise and fall in violent crime, police officer strength is the most critical. Police strength has dropped from almost 13,500 sworn officers in 2019 to a little over 11,600 as of March 2022. Murder rates have spiked between 2019 and 2022. The number of police officers impacts officer visibility, which is a deterrence itself. A RealClear Opinion Research survey showed 77% of Black Chicagoans want to see as many or more police in their communities. Close to the 80% of all Chicagoans answered the same way. Chicagoans implicitly feel there is a severe shortage of officers.

The city has had difficulty retaining police officers as well as recruiting new, quality candidates, resulting in lower standards. But the selection of Larry Snelling and the new contract with the Fraternal Order of Police should help change that.

What would also help is a return to normal, predictable police work and an end to “friends and family” promotions. CPD officers should merit promotions based on accumulated service time, time logged in a specific pay grade and advanced training. Promotions should be earned. This is the best practice, and a promotion system used by the U.S. military with great success.

If the city is serious about restoring police effectiveness by filling vacancies, there are things leaders can do to also improve the quality and experience of its officers:

  • Accelerate the process for replacing officers by testing and hiring in-person and online twice a month. They can host training classes that run during the day and night to maximize the output of new officers.
  • Allow police officers who have transferred to other police departments to return, with no loss in seniority from time of departure.
  • Incentivize retired CPD officers with investigatory experience to return to serve as analysts. They could help detectives close cases and staff a legitimate program to protect witnesses and victims.
  • Streamline and expedite the transfer process for clearly qualified and experienced police officers who want to move to CPD from other police departments.
  • Aggressively recruit members from the armed services and allow online testing for service members who are on military bases and serving overseas.
  • Waive the residency requirement for new recruits until they are off their probationary status and lift the city residency requirement for officers with over 20 years on the job.
  • End the privatized Chicago Transit Authority security force and use the money to hire an additional 300 CPD officers as part of the CTA’s Public Transit Unit, each specially trained for and assigned full-time to transit duty. 
  • Create a “Chicago Police Reserve” modeled after the program in Los Angeles. Former CPD officers who are now Chicago firefighters or who 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, crises, etc.
  • Create a permanent pipeline of diversified, high-quality recruits who are drawn from the communities they will serve. Partner with the city’s seven public high school military academies, 37 ROTC programs with over 9,000 students, and Chicago Police and Firefighter Training Academy to strengthen the pipeline of new talent.

Restoring police strength must be part of a strategy that restores true community-based policing in which each local police beat is covered by officers who know and are known by the community and are responding to 911 calls in real time. Police beats must include CTA stations and train platforms. This requires a policing strategy that assigns more than 54% of its officers to police districts.

These actions would help restore the ranks by improving the city’s retention of officers, restore police officer morale and expand the size and quality of the pool of new and returning officers.

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

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