No, Chuy, let's not hire a thousand more cops

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Jesus Garcia speaks outside the DuSable Museum before a recent debate. He pledges to hire a thousand more police officers if he's elected mayor.
  • Michael Schmidt/Sun-Times
  • Jesus Garcia speaks outside the DuSable Museum before a recent debate. He pledges to hire a thousand more police officers if he's elected mayor.
A politician campaigns in poetry and governs in prose, Rahm Emanuel's buddy David Axelrod likes to say. That maxim, coined by the late New York governor Mario Cuomo, is astute, but the "poetry" of a campaign is rarely the challenging type. It tends to be shallow and ingratiating—it's designed to be music to the ears of voters. A candidate's campaign "poetry" rarely will include a stanza on raising taxes, for instance.

When he ran for mayor four years ago, Emanuel promised to hire an extra thousand cops to make Chicago safer. This was textbook campaign pandering. Urban violence is a complex problem, tightly linked with poverty and segregation; that's why there's far more of it in West Garfield Park than in Edison Park. Extra cops can briefly and minimally reduce violence, but at a significant price. More cops mean more arrests, of the nonviolent as well as the violent, the innocent as well as the guilty. Besides the salaries of the police officers themselves, there are the considerable expenses of trying and jailing these extra arrestees. Those convicted, even of the pettiest offenses, will have worse prospects of legitimate employment, making them likelier to reoffend. The more spent on this approach, the less that's available for preventive strategies to diminish violence.

But voters—and police unions—like the sound of "more cops," so such pledges make good campaign poetry. After Emanuel got elected he began governing in prose, which meant shifting officers around and relying increasingly on overtime rather than fulfilling his pricier promise to hire a thousand new ones.

Now, four years later, Cook County commissioner Jesus "Chuy" Garcia offers himself as a liberal alternative to Emanuel. He's sparing no cliches in the poetry of his campaign. He's "the neighborhoods guy" who will "empower communities" by "bringing stakeholders to the table." Oh, and he'll hire a thousand extra cops.

"Violent crime is a staggering problem throughout the entire city," he says on his website. (That's not correct. It's a staggering problem in certain neighborhoods, and it appears to be declining citywide.) "I will keep the promise Mayor Emanuel broke—the promise to put 1,000 new police officers on the street. Without those officers, we will never be able to end the heartbreaking violence that has taken the lives of so many of our children."

Lest you think he's just some law-and-order conservative, he adds on his website that strategies to reduce crime must be "multi-faceted." He promises to invest in libraries, parks, schools, and "community justice hubs" that will help residents "reclaim their communities" and that will provide safe places "where children can thrive and neighbors can fellowship." He'll spend more on community policing, mental health services, job creation, summer jobs for youth, and in support of small businesses.

Where will he get the money for these other initiatives? He's yet to say. He's against a commuter tax and a property tax increase, he's expressed doubts about a financial transaction tax, and he's called for a moratorium on red light cameras.

Alderman Bob Fioretti, a fellow candidate, has also pledged to hire "at least" 500 more police officers.

The thousand cops Garcia wants to hire will cost $111 million a year, by his estimate. (The Emanuel campaign says it would cost $126 million.) Garcia says some of this expenditure would be offset because he'd direct his police superintendent to rely less on overtime. Which means the thousand extra cops he's promising will really amount to fewer than that—but a thousand has a nicer ring to it.

I asked Garcia's press secretary on Tuesday how much of the $111 million would be counterbalanced by reductions in overtime; and what the net gain in police staffing levels would be; and how much of a reduction in violent crime Garcia foresees from this approach. No response yet to these questions.

"Jobs and educational opportunities are the best crime and violence prevention tools we have," Garcia notes on his website. "Our children’s future is priceless."

But government budgets aren't priceless. A mayor must choose his priorities. The millions Garcia would spend on extra cops are millions he wouldn't be able to spend on "the best crime and violence prevention tools."

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