Chicago Is Spending $1.6 Billion on 13,000 Police. Is It Worth It?

With shootings and murders on the rise and President Trump sending federal agents to the city, community organizers and criminologists point to a police hiring spree from just four years ago to show that more cops on Chicago’s streets aren’t the answer.

Carlos Ballesteros July 30, 2020

Chicago has more sworn police officers per capita than New York, Los Angeles and Houston. (Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)

Asi­a­ha But­ler walked into the Ellis Park field­house on Chicago’s South Side for a com­mu­ni­ty meet­ing on the Sat­ur­day before the Fourth of July. She was hop­ing to hear some­thing dif­fer­ent from local offi­cials about their plans for improv­ing pub­lic safety.

“We’re not going to arrest our way out of this problem.”

Ear­li­er that after­noon, 1‑year-old Sin­cere Gas­ton died after being shot in the chest as he sat in the back­seat of his mom’s red sedan on their way home from a laun­dro­mat in the city’s Engle­wood neigh­bor­hood, also on the South Side. So far in 2020, 43 peo­ple have been mur­dered in the Engle­wood and West Engle­wood com­mu­ni­ties, a high­er homi­cide count than in the entire city of Oak­land, California.

Every mur­der, every shoot­ing hurts,” But­ler said. There’s no get­ting used to this.”

As head of the Res­i­dent Asso­ci­a­tion of Greater Engle­wood, But­ler, 44, was invit­ed to the field­house by city offi­cials to fig­ure out, along­side promi­nent local cler­gy and oth­er com­mu­ni­ty lead­ers, how to stem the car­nage they all feared for the upcom­ing hol­i­day weekend.

But­ler attend­ed a sim­i­lar meet­ing in 2016, the city’s worst year for gun vio­lence in near­ly two decades. It didn’t take long for But­ler to real­ize that this year’s meet­ing start­ed to sound like a rerun.

I’m look­ing around this room and these are the same lead­ers as last time, talk­ing about the same ideas, and the city propos­ing the exact same strat­e­gy: More police on the street,” she said. And guess what? Fourth of July was just as dead­ly.”

With more than 400 mur­ders so far this year, Chica­go is on track to sur­pass its 2016 homi­cide rate. 

At the time, May­or Rahm Emanuel respond­ed by hir­ing over 1,000 new cops over two years. The esti­mat­ed cost in salaries, ben­e­fits and super­vi­sion for the new hires was more than $130 mil­lion in the first year, or well over $1 bil­lion in their first decade on the force. Emanuel’s admin­is­tra­tion defend­ed the cost­ly hir­ing spree by cit­ing an alleged top to bot­tom” analy­sis of the police depart­ment show­ing that the city need­ed hun­dreds of new cops.

But four years lat­er, attor­neys for the city say that staffing analy­sis is nowhere to be found.

Today, Chica­go has more sworn offi­cers per capi­ta than New York, Los Ange­les and Hous­ton. Salaries and over­time pay for those offi­cers take up almost all of the $1.65 bil­lion ear­marked for the police depart­ment in the city’s 2020 oper­at­ing bud­get, the largest police bud­get on record.

We hired all these new cops and for what? It feels like we’re back to square one,” But­ler said.

In a state­ment, May­or Lori Lightfoot’s office said Chica­go is com­mit­ted to address­ing the root caus­es of gun vio­lence beyond polic­ing. The mayor’s office tout­ed the Invest South/​West ini­tia­tive, which aims to bring $750 mil­lion to ten dis­tressed neigh­bor­hoods over the next three years. Lightfoot’s office also high­light­ed the city’s record-high invest­ments in street out­reach and trau­ma-informed vic­tims services.” 

But as the city faces an expect­ed $700 mil­lion bud­get short­fall due to the coro­n­avirus pan­dem­ic, crim­i­nol­o­gists say more police offi­cers doesn’t nec­es­sar­i­ly mean less crime. And a grow­ing cadre of activists and com­mu­ni­ty orga­niz­ers are urg­ing May­or Light­foot to divest from the Chica­go Police Depart­ment so that the city can afford to try some­thing new.

Good and rea­son­able search’

When Emanuel took the podi­um at Mal­colm X Col­lege on Sept. 22, 2016, Chica­go had already sur­passed 500 mur­ders for the year and was aver­ag­ing 12 shoot­ings a day — lev­els of gun vio­lence the city hadn’t seen since the mid-1990s.

With news cam­eras rolling, Emanuel out­lined his plan to stop the blood­shed: The city would expand its men­tor­ship pro­grams, con­tin­ue to fund sum­mer youth jobs, and hire an extra 516 offi­cers, 92 field-train­ing offi­cers, 200 detec­tives, 112 sergeants, and 50 lieu­tenants in two years.

As big a prob­lem as gun vio­lence is for Chica­go, it is not beyond our abil­i­ty to solve. End­ing this string of tragedies is our top pri­or­i­ty as a city,” Emanuel said at Mal­colm X. We are infus­ing our police depart­ment with the man­pow­er, tech­nol­o­gy and train­ing to meet this chal­lenge head-on.”

The new hires would reverse the shrink­ing of the depart­ment that had tak­en place dur­ing Emanuel’s first term in office, when, in the face of a $500 mil­lion bud­get deficit, he allowed the num­ber of sworn offi­cers to dip below 12,000 for the first time since the mid-1980s.

But as the num­ber of cops fell, so did crime: Between 2011 and 2015, the num­ber of index crimes — which include mur­der, rob­bery, aggra­vat­ed assault, arson, bur­glary, and motor vehi­cle theft — dropped by 30%, accord­ing to an Injus­tice Watch analy­sis of CPD data report­ed to the FBI. (This analy­sis excludes rapes and sex­u­al offenses.)

When asked by the Chica­go Sun-Times why the city need­ed so many new cops, then-Supt. Eddie John­son said Emanuel based his deci­sion on a staffing analy­sis of the police department.

We did an over­all analy­sis of the depart­ment … and this is what I think we need to make Chica­go safer,” John­son told the news­pa­per a day before Emanuel’s speech at Mal­colm X.

The police depart­ment has yet to release a copy of the staffing analysis. 

They’ve so far refused to hand over or sim­ply can’t find any analy­sis they did to sup­port that hir­ing,” said Tra­cy Siska, direc­tor of the Chica­go Jus­tice Project, a watch­dog group that sued the depart­ment for not com­ply­ing with a Free­dom of Infor­ma­tion Act request for the analy­sis.

Court records show the city first said the staffing analy­sis was part of a more exten­sive report on the police depart­ment con­duct­ed by an out­side law firm. The city argued that the report — and every­thing in it — should be off-lim­its to the pub­lic because of attor­ney-client privilege.

But last Decem­ber, Cook Coun­ty Cir­cuit Court Judge Car­o­line More­land reviewed that report and didn’t find the miss­ing staffing analy­sis, court records show. 

Ear­li­er this month, after con­duct­ing a good faith and rea­son­able search,” the city said in court that it couldn’t find the staffing analy­sis with­in the police department’s files.

The police depart­ment has a bur­den and an oblig­a­tion to pro­duce these records and it hasn’t,” said attor­ney Mer­rick Wayne of Loevy and Loevy, who rep­re­sents the Chica­go Jus­tice Project.

A spokesman for the Chica­go Police Depart­ment said the depart­ment deter­mines its staffing lev­els based on oper­a­tional needs as well as keep­ing up with attri­tion lev­els.” But with­out being privy to the rea­son­ing behind the department’s deci­sion-mak­ing, Chica­go could be spend­ing a lot more on polic­ing than it needs to, Siska said.

Staffing deci­sions around polic­ing are incred­i­bly expen­sive, and need to be done based on sci­ence, not pol­i­tics,” he said. Just imag­ine what can be done on the South and West sides with $1 bil­lion invest­ed over 10 years.”

The Chica­go Police Depart­ment is cur­rent­ly con­duct­ing a new staffing analy­sis as part of the con­sent decree it entered into with the Illi­nois Attor­ney General’s office last year. Accord­ing to a June report from Mar­garey Hick­ey, the court-appoint­ed inde­pen­dent mon­i­tor, the depart­ment has hired the Uni­ver­si­ty of Chica­go Crime Lab, the Civic Con­sult­ing Alliance and oth­er experts to per­form the analy­sis. The report does not indi­cate when the analy­sis will be completed.

Deep inter­ven­tions’

This year’s mur­der spike has some offi­cials again call­ing for a greater police pres­ence in Chicago.

Ear­li­er this month, Super­in­ten­dent David Brown near­ly dou­bled the Sum­mer Patrol Unit, which over­sees so-called crime hotspots” across the city, to more than 200 offi­cers and deployed the department’s Com­mu­ni­ty Safe­ty Team, made up of about 300 offi­cers, to areas of the South and West sides that have seen an uptick in crime. Brown also cre­at­ed an entire­ly new unit of 250 offi­cers called the Crit­i­cal Inci­dent Response Team to act as, in his words, a rov­ing strike force” when needed.

City Coun­cil mem­ber Chris Tal­i­a­fer­ro, a for­mer cop and chair of the council’s pub­lic safe­ty com­mit­tee, wants the depart­ment to res­ur­rect Oper­a­tion Impact Zone,” a con­tro­ver­sial pro­gram dis­band­ed in 2016 that placed foot patrols of young offi­cers in high-crime areas.

Mean­while, John Catan­zara, Jr., pres­i­dent of Chicago’s Fra­ter­nal Order of Police, the city’s rank-and-file police union, went so far as to request that Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump send fed­er­al law enforce­ment to rein in the chaos cur­rent­ly affect­ing our city.” 

Trump even­tu­al­ly did send hun­dreds of FBI, DEA and ATF agents to Chica­go in late July — report­ed­ly with Lightfoot’s bless­ing. What we will receive is resources that are going to plug into the exist­ing fed­er­al agen­cies that we work with on a reg­u­lar basis to help man­age and sup­press vio­lent crime in our city,” the may­or told reporters last week.

But activists call­ing on Light­foot to defund the police say more cops on the street isn’t an answer to gun vio­lence. They point to a recent mass shoot­ing in Auburn Gre­sham, where 15 peo­ple were shot out­side a funer­al home — even though there were two police squad cars and a full tac­ti­cal team guard­ing the funer­al.

That the police were present near the funer­al breaks some of the myths peo­ple have of what polic­ing is, what it does, and what it can do. It’s evi­dence that more police are not going to pre­vent these shoot­ings,” said Damon Williams, 27, co-founder of the activist group #LetUs­Breathe Col­lec­tive, and an Auburn Gre­sham native.

Instead of more police fund­ing, Williams argues solv­ing Chicago’s gun vio­lence cri­sis will take years of invest­ments in social ser­vices like job train­ing and men­tal health counseling. 

When I hear of some­one shoot­ing up a funer­al, I think of PTSD, depres­sion, loss of jobs,” he said. We’re not going to arrest our way out of this problem.”

But­ler likes to refer to these kinds of invest­ments as deep inter­ven­tions”: Long-term com­mit­ments to strug­gling neigh­bor­hoods beyond pun­ish­ment and incarceration. 

In Engle­wood—after decades of the city tear­ing down thou­sands of homes, schools, and depart­ment stores with­out putting any­thing in their place—that means lit­er­al­ly build­ing parts of the neigh­bor­hood from the ground up, she said.

We need to help home­own­ers secure their homes, ini­tia­tives to get peo­ple work­ing on restor­ing and fill­ing aban­doned build­ings. We need to build new hous­ing,” she said.

Fund­ing for those ideas should come out of the police department’s cof­fers, accord­ing to Louisa Manske, pol­i­cy direc­tor at the Work­ers Cen­ter for Racial Jus­tice in Bronzeville and lead author of a pro­pos­al call­ing for Chica­go to cut its police bud­get by $900 mil­lion with­in three years. 

The cuts would bring the city’s per capi­ta spend­ing on polic­ing, cur­rent­ly at more than $600 per res­i­dent, just under the cur­rent aver­age spent among the nation’s top ten most pop­u­lous cities,” accord­ing to the proposal.

The city could rein­vest most of that mon­ey — $700 mil­lion — into hous­ing, pub­lic health and fam­i­ly and sup­port ser­vices under the pro­pos­al. The rest would estab­lish a Com­mu­ni­ty Safe­ty Unit” focused on emer­gen­cies that don’t require police and take up the bulk of 911 calls like men­tal health crises, traf­fic inci­dents and fil­ing crime inci­dent reports.

Three years might seem dras­tic,” Manske said, but the city is in a state of emergency.”

A more grad­ual approach to defund­ing the police could be to replace sworn offi­cers who spend most of their day at a desk with non-dep­u­tized civilians. 

It’s a lot cheap­er to hire and train civil­ians to do those jobs,” said Wes­ley Sko­gan, a North­west­ern Uni­ver­si­ty crim­i­nol­o­gist and an expert on the Chica­go Police Department.

The city could also stop hir­ing new police offi­cers as old­er ones retire. With­in 10 years, you’d cut the depart­ment in half,” Sko­gan said. You can use that pot of mon­ey to jump­start oth­er pro­grams that take respon­si­bil­i­ties away from the police every year.”

John Hage­dorn, a Uni­ver­si­ty of Illi­nois at Chica­go crim­i­nol­o­gist and an expert on gang vio­lence, said the city needs new, inno­v­a­tive solu­tions to address gun vio­lence away from policing. 

The stan­dard answer is that when you have a rise in crime, you should hire more cops, but the idea that more cops will mean few­er crimes is an old way of think­ing,” he said. 

There’s no data that sup­ports that.”

An either/​or proposition?

Unlike may­ors in cities like Min­neapo­lis, Seat­tle and Los Ange­les, Light­foot isn’t inter­est­ed in defund­ing the police, derid­ing the move­ment as sim­ply a nice hash­tag.”

One of Lightfoot’s main argu­ments against the move­ment is that reduc­ing the police department’s size would wors­en job prospects for Blacks and Lat­inx people. 

When you’re talk­ing about defund­ing the police, you’re talk­ing about…eliminating one of the few tools that the city has to cre­ate mid­dle-class incomes for Black and Brown folks. Nobody talks about that in the dis­cus­sion to defund the police,” Light­foot told The New York Times in June.

Light­foot also argues Chica­go can keep the police bud­get intact while also upping the fund­ing for social ser­vices. The invest­ments that we are com­mit­ted to mak­ing in vio­lence reduc­tion, in men­tal health, in afford­able hous­ing and work­force devel­op­ment; we need to make those invest­ments, peri­od, and we’ve com­mit­ted to that,” Light­foot told reporters in June.

For me, it’s not an either/​or proposition.” 

But Manske said Chica­go could hire Black and Lat­inx res­i­dents to fill the jobs cre­at­ed by shift­ing respon­si­bil­i­ties away from police. It’s an indict­ment on this city that one of the few options to achieve mid­dle-class sta­tus is for Black and Lat­inx peo­ple to join the police. That should be an incen­tive for us to invest in oth­er areas, not a rea­son to keep doing what we’re doing,” she said.

Activists say Lightfoot’s attempt to keep fund­ing the police depart­ment at its cur­rent lev­els while rais­ing mon­ey for more social pro­grams is a non-starter.

We don’t want [Light­foot] to do both, because the police take up so much of our city’s bud­get and also per­pe­trate vio­lence in our com­mu­ni­ties,” said Des­tiny Har­ris, a 19-year-old orga­niz­er with activist groups #NoCo­pAcad­e­my and Dis­senters, who grew up in the West Side neigh­bor­hood of Austin. 

If we keep pour­ing mon­ey into the police instead of things that address the root caus­es of vio­lence,” she said, we’re going to keep get­ting the same results.”

This sto­ry was pro­duced in part­ner­ship with Injus­tice Watch.

Car­los Balles­teros is a free­lance writer based in Chica­go. He was born and raised in the South Side and recent­ly grad­u­at­ed from Clare­mont McKen­na Col­lege with a B.A. in History.
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