Day after scathing report, Chicago’s top cop announces changes aimed at giving police officers more time off

The new policy comes after the city’s watchdog reported that the police department had scheduled nearly 1,200 officers to work at least 11 straight days earlier this year.

SHARE Day after scathing report, Chicago’s top cop announces changes aimed at giving police officers more time off
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Chicago Police Supt. David Brown, right, listens to Mayor Lori Lightfoot as she speaks on the different initiatives to reduce crime in the city during a press conference at City Hall, Wednesday, March 2, 2022.

Anthony Vazquez/Sun-Times

Chicago’s top cop on Tuesday announced changes aimed at cutting back on the controversial practice of canceling days off, a day after the city’s watchdog issued a scathing report showing the police department scheduled nearly 1,200 officers to work at least 11 straight days earlier this year.

Long decried by overworked officers, the department’s reliance on cutting time off faced intense scrutiny after three officer suicides rocked the force in July. Mayor Lori Lightfoot and Chicago Police Supt. David Brown had downplayed the scope and impact of the practice but have since taken more sympathetic stances.

“While our officers work to safeguard this city, we must also put safeguards in place to protect our officers,” Brown said in a statement announcing the changes. “The health and well-being of our officers is a top priority, and we have taken steps to ensure they have time to rest and re-energize.”

Under the new directive, effective immediately, most officers can’t have more than one off day canceled each week, Brown said. But they can still have two off days canceled during certain periods, including the historically violent Memorial Day, July 4th and Labor Day holidays.

Those officers will also be guaranteed two consecutive days off in each of the department’s 13 “police periods” throughout the year, the superintendent said.

These provisions don’t apply to certain officers, including those on tactical teams and other specialized units. All officers will, however, be given a minimum of nine hours between shifts, Brown said.

“The physical and emotional well-being of our officers remains the top priority of our department,” he said.

The new policy comes a day after newly appointed Inspector General Deborah Witzburg released an analysis showing at least 1,190 Chicago police officers were scheduled to work at least 11 straight days during April and May.

The analysis was painstakingly conducted by manually reviewing attendance, assignment and overtime records. Witzburg said CPD record-keeping is so inadequate, it was impossible to gauge the precise number of officers affected.

She urged the Chicago Police Department to decide “how much is too much when it comes to consecutive days and lack of rest,” and said there “needs to be a reckoning about how we store this information so that the department is well-positioned to make thoughtful, well-informed management decisions about how it staffs the police department.”

On Tuesday, Witzburg refused to say whether Brown’s new policy was “good enough” to give officers who have endured a relentless string of canceled days off — in a department with nearly 2,000 police vacancies — the time off they need to unwind, decompress and spend time with their families.

She would only say she was “heartened to see the department tending to this … really critical issue” after 10 police suicides since 2018, three of them in July alone.

“I take the superintendent’s statement to be an acknowledgment of the seriousness of the problem and how important it is to find the right solution,” Witzburg said. “Every time we lose a CPD member to suicide, we ought to understand that to be a further call to action to attend to the safety and the well-being of CPD’s members.”

In a letter attached to Witzburg’s analysis, Brown had argued that certain “circumstances” were missing from the IG’s report. He noted that, over Memorial Day weekend, Chicago was “fully open for the first time” since the pandemic and “more than 40 special events” and “hundreds of thousands of residents and visitors” needed to be protected.

The superintendent also pointed out that the 1,190 officers identified as having been scheduled to work at least 11 consecutive days represented just “10 percent” of the total number of sworn officers.

Witzburg took note of the many exceptions in the policy announced by Brown.

“The superintendent in his response to our report talked about the need to balance public safety priorities and officer wellness,” she said. “It sounds to me as though this approach is an attempt to balance those interests. Whether this is the right balance is not a determination for us to make. That’s a determination for the city and department leadership to make.”

Ald. Matt O’Shea (19th), whose Far Southwest Side ward is home to scores of Chicago police officers, has introduced an ordinance that would guarantee officers at least 24 hours of consecutive rest for every 60 hours they work. That’s one day off a week to decompress.

O’Shea called Brown’s policy change an “important first step.” But he also pointed out that there are “a lot of exceptions” to the superintendent’s order and that “a lot more work” needs to be done to ensure “mental wellness” of officers and confront the “significant staffing shortage” within the police department.

“The reason we have these officers’ days off being canceled is because we have nearly 1,800 less police officers than we did three years ago,” he said. “We need to begin really working on the staffing crisis. An important first step in that is to talk about the hiring incentive ordinance I put forth. I don’t know if that is the best plan, but it’s a plan and it’s one that I’ve been trying to get traction on.”

Two months ago, the mayor denied that Chicago police officers were being driven to the breaking point with a relentless string of canceled days off.

Lightfoot argued then that the amount of “respite baked into” the police contract — and the advance notice officers “never used to get” before days off were canceled — made Fraternal Order of Police President John Catanzara’s “narrative” about cops being worked “like mules” false.

The mayor’s argument has been ridiculed by police officers on social media. Catanzara joined the chorus against his political nemesis in a YouTube video message to the rank and file.

Just last week, Lightfoot’s new deputy mayor for public safety, Elena Gottreich, told City Council members that the mayor’s office was trying to “do better than the one day a week” of rest time demanded by O’Shea’s ordinance.

But she said a long-term solution would have to wait until an independent arbitrator rules on the police union’s proposal for guaranteed time off.

“Do we want people to have one day off a week? Absolutely,” she said. “I don’t think the superintendent would disagree with that ... But the collective bargaining process has to happen.”

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