Driven by low morale and lured by the expiring offer of free health insurance at age 55, 274 Chicago Police officers have declared their intention to retire by June 30, making it more difficult for Mayor Rahm Emanuel to deliver on his two-year promise to bolster the police force by 970 officers.

In 2009, then-Mayor Richard M. Daley cut a deal with the police union to save $23 million and pave the way for an infusion of younger, more energetic officers in a Chicago Police Department that, at the time, had 700 officers between 55 and 60 and an average age of 41.5 for officers below the rank of sergeant.

At the time, police officers had to wait until age 60 to retire with premium health benefits that include free premiums but require them to pay co-pays until age 65, when they become eligible for Medicare.

The new agreement extended retiree health care to officers who called it quits at age 55 and their eligible dependents, provided the officers agreed to accept a “staggered pay out” of accumulated comp time.

On June 30, the FOP contract that extended that offer will expire.

The Chicago Police Department will need hundreds of recruits to fill the vacancies created by officers retiring early to retain a key health insurance benefit. | Sun-Times file photo

The Chicago Police Department will need hundreds of recruits to fill the vacancies created by officers retiring early to retain a key health insurance benefit. | Sun-Times file photo

That’s at least part of the reason why 274 Chicago Police officers who are either 55 and older or approaching their 55th birthday notified the Chicago Police Department by an Oct. 1 deadline of their intention to retire next year.

Coupled with the 495 vacancies across all ranks, that means Emanuel will begin the job of delivering on his promised police hiring surge 769 officers in the hole.

Chicago aldermen were already skeptical about the mayor’s ability to fill vacancies, keep pace with retirements and still hire enough police officers in 2017 to add 250 patrol officers, 37 sergeants, 50 lieutenants, 92 field training officers and 100 detectives to raise an abysmal clearance rate for homicides and shootings.

They’re almost certain to be even more dubious now — even though the Chicago Police Department has assured aldermen the city intends to fill 363 of those vacancies in January.

“We know this is an aggressive hiring plan, which is why we are increasing training capacity. And we are creating a more efficient pre-employment process,” Chicago Police Department spokesman Anthony Guglielmi wrote in an email to the Chicago Sun-Times.

“The vacancies CPD has received notice on take into account the POs that are retiring to take advantage of the age 55 retirement with free health care. … The two-year hiring plan takes into consideration vacancies, attrition, promotion and new hires. And the hiring plan accounts for a significant number of more retirements than are currently notified, so we are already planning for these retirements and attrition and the addition of sworn personnel hired this year. … We have already accounted for the 274 and then some.”

Pressed to describe the “increased training capacity” and “more efficient pre-employment process,” Guglielmi essentially said “Stay tuned” when he replied:

Anne Kirkpatrick, the former police chief of Spokane, Wash. was not hired to run the Chicago Police Department but was asked to head up the department's new Bureau of Professional Standards. | File photo

Anne Kirkpatrick, the former police chief of Spokane, Wash. was not hired to run the Chicago Police Department but was asked to head up the department’s new Bureau of Professional Standards. | File photo

“Chief [Anne] Kirkpatrick is finalizing a comprehensive plan to significantly improve the quality of CPD’s existing training curriculum and capabilities of the educational staff at the academy,” Guglielmi wrote.

“This will include instructional improvements centered on scenario-based training and coursework derived from national best practices. Parallel to this, the Chief is focusing on building capacity to accommodate the new 2017 hires, attrition related vacancies and existing in-service training.”

Kirkpatrick is the former police chief of Spokane, Washington who was one of three finalists chosen by the Police Board after a nationwide search that followed Emanuel’s decision to fire his only Police Superintendent Garry McCarthy in the fall-out from the police shooting of Laquan McDonald.

Emanuel rejected all three finalists and appointed Eddie Johnson, who didn’t even apply for the job.

Johnson subsequently chose Kirkpatrick to head a new Bureau of Professional Standards charged with carrying out reforms recommended by Emanuel’s Task Force on Police Accountability and, ultimately, by the U.S. Justice Department.

Earlier this week, Kirkpatrick refused to answer questions about the hiring plan as she hustled out of a series of closed-door briefings with small groups of aldermen.

Southwest Side Ald. Derrick Curtis (18th) was asked whether he believes Emanuel can pull it off and still follow through on his commitment to train veteran officers in de-escalation tactics, a new use-of-force policy and crisis intervention training to serve people with mental health issues.

“I’m praying because I’m really looking for the additional resources. I’m hoping all of this works out,” Curtis said, referring to a 50 percent surge in homicides and shootings and a troubling spike in other violent crimes.

Ald. Gilbert Villegas (36th) said he's been assured the CPD can meet its ambitious hiring goals. |  Sun-Times file photo

Ald. Gilbert Villegas (36th) said he’s been assured the CPD can meet its ambitious hiring goals. | Sun-Times file photo

Ald. Gilbert Villegas (36th) said Kirkpatrick assured aldermen the police academy would rev up into a factory.

“Instead of 100 police officers trained every six months in the academy, they’re gonna do a hundred a month in 2017 for eleven months to get 1,100 through the academy and on the street,” Villegas said.

“It’s gonna be a tough challenge. One of the questions posed was, `You’re in essence doubling the output. Are you guys equipped for it?’ And they said, ‘Yes.'”

Ald. Scott Waguespack (32nd) noted that the Chicago Police Department spent a record $116.1 million on overtime in 2015 – up 17.2 percent from the previous year – to mask a manpower shortage that has mushroomed under Emanuel with police retirements outpacing hiring by 975 officers. Overtime spending is expected to be about the same again this year.

“It’s not just about this year and next year. It’s about what happened over the last five years and trying to catch up to that,” Waguespack said.

“They’re talking about [churning out] 100-per-month. We’ll see if they can get there.”

Ald. Anthony Beale (9th), former longtime chairman of the City Council’s Police Committee, said he, too, has his doubts about Emanuel’s ability to deliver the two-year hiring surge when he’s starting 770 officers in the hole.

“I’m not saying it can’t be done, but it is a huge undertaking when you look at the capacity of the academy and the amount of officers that need to be training and re-trained,” Beale said.

Emanuel’s proposed 2017 budget includes a 31 percent increase in funding — and a 25 percent increase in staff — for the Chicago Police Department’s Education and Training Division.

It would go from 95 employees and an annual budget of $8.3 million to 119 employees and $10.9 million.

During an exclusive interview with the Chicago Sun-Times last week, Emanuel declared his intention to open one or more auxiliary training facilities immediately and build a “21st Century training facility for public safety” in the long-run to replace the cramped and antiquated facility at 1300 W. Jackson.