Still No Council Hearings Scheduled on Police Understaffing



The City Council's finance and police committees signed off on new contracts for police officers and police sergeants Tuesday afternoon without any debate or discussion.

"It is what it is," 28th Ward alderman Ed Smith muttered after terms of the deals were summarized for committee members. None of the other aldermen in the room had even that much to say about the contracts, which will give rank-and-file officers a 10 percent pay hike over five years and eventually require them to undergo drug and alcohol testing.

But at least the aldermen had a chance to discuss the contracts. Another key matter was left off the agenda altogether: understaffing at the police department during a time of increased violence.

Two months ago 20 aldermen called for a public hearing to discuss understaffing in the police department—at the time there were 11,320 officers on the city payroll, 420 fewer than two years earlier and 697 fewer than what the City Council approved in the 2010 budget. Others estimated the ranks were down as many as 2,000 officers.

That was before the annual warm-weather uptick in violence. Yet police committee chairman Anthony Beale still won't commit to holding a hearing on police staffing and its implications.

"We’re looking at it—we’re trying to figure out what’s the best approach," Beale said after the meeting Tuesday. "We all know that the police department is understaffed and we would like to get them up to staff and add additional [officers]."

But he added that the city doesn't have the money. "We’re in a budget crisis, and right now—I mean, right here, this contract that we’re approving today is going to cost the city of Chicago $370 million. If you add more officers to that $370 million, we have to figure out where we’re going to get that money. So we can’t talk about adding until we figure out how we’re going to pay for this agreement."

Over the last few weeks I've heard residents at CAPS meetings fret about slower-than-usual response times when they've called 911 to report gang activity or drug dealing in front of their homes. CAPS officers have told them to keep calling until someone shows up, because that's the only way to make it clear the matter is urgent. Meanwhile, aldermen are hearing it from their constituents. I was talking with an alderman about another issue last week when he started griping that gang activity was on the rise in his relatively low crime ward. "There just aren't any officers on the street," he said.

Earlier this month Mayor Daley responded to some of the frustration by announcing that he was moving 44 officers from desk duty and arson investigations to help out in the districts. He said another 86 will be hired later this summer with money from a federal grant.

But that won't make up all of the difference, and lots of aldermen are wondering how the department is going to cope with an expected increase in calls over the summer months.

Beale said he understands the concerns but begged for patience, noting he's only chaired the police committee since April, when Daley handpicked him for the post. In fact, Beale's justifications for not holding a hearing sound a lot like what Daley has said about police staffing, and there's precedent for the police committee chairman to do what he's told. Of course, Beale vowed to be his own man when he assumed the chairmanship. “There’s not any appointment in the world that’s going to have me compromise my integrity," he said at the time.

"We’re probably going to have some hearings on it," Beale told me Tuesday. "But again, I’m the new chairman, and as soon as I walked in I had this contract put on my lap. So I’ve got to figure out all the ordinances before the committee and then we’ll move forward from there. I’m still new, getting my feet wet."

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