Vallas to Lightfoot: Stop using pandemic as ‘excuse’ for police hiring slowdown

Former mayoral challenger Paul Vallas, a lead contract negotiator for the Fraternal Order of Police, said there are 1,000 vacancies among rank-and-file officers — and that 143 budgeted positions at the rank of sergeant remain unfilled.

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These Chicago police officers were on duty near East 71st Street and South Chappel Avenue in South Shore on Monday, June 1, 2020 after a weekend of protests, riots and looting throughout the city.

A police union negotiator says the city has been using the pandemic as an excuse for a hiring slowdown, and claims the department has 1,000 vacancies among rank-and-file officers.

Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times

Mayor Lori Lightfoot was urged Thursday to stop using the pandemic as an “excuse” for a police hiring slowdown and start filling a slew of police vacancies that have forced officers to work excessive amounts of overtime.

Former mayoral challenger Paul Vallas served as a lead negotiator for the Fraternal Order of Police.

He helped to deliver the tentative, eight-year contract that ended the longest labor stalemate in Chicago history.

On Thursday, Vallas pegged the number of vacancies among rank-and-file officers at 1,000. That’s notable, since Lightfoot’s $12.8 billion 2021 budget eliminated 614 police vacancies, shrinking the Chicago Police Department by attrition.

Equally troubling is Vallas’ claim that 143 budgeted positions at the rank of sergeant remain unfilled. He argued the shortage of police supervisors is so acute, the West Side’s Harrison District, notoriously among the most violent, operated last Sunday without a single sergeant.

“Stop making excuses that COVID has impeded their ability to have large classes to train police officers. … [Bulls owner] Jerry Reinsdorf would give ’em the United Center to do training if they needed to space people out. They could easily run — not one class, they could run two classes. A day shift and a night shift,” Vallas told the Sun-Times.

Vallas served former Mayor Richard M. Daley as city revenue director and budget director during the 1990’s.

During his multi-year stint as budget director, the city never paid more than $35 million for police overtime, he said.

“What are they gonna pay this year? $200 million or more? ... With the contract and the increase in pay, the cost of overtime is even gonna go greater. So the longer they delay in filling vacancies, any dollar savings is gonna be offset by the amount of money paid in overtime. And they’re gonna pay the price in exhausted, demoralized police officers,” he said.

Vallas argued the city’s failure to fill vacancies has touched off a tidal wave of police retirements. More officers retired during the first six months of this year than in all of 2018.

That’s almost certain to continue after the contract is ratified by the rank-and-file and the City Council.

Compounding the problem is the misuse of the resources the city does have, Vallas said.

“They’ve pulled over 1,000 officers from the local beats and put them in these citywide units. .… The stripping of officers from local police districts. That includes the high-crime districts. The 10 highest-crime districts in the city have had anywhere from 75-to-175 of their beat officers pulled. That’s a disaster. The mismanagement of that department and the misuse of the resources is making things far worse,” Vallas said.

Does that mean Vallas thinks CPD Supt. David Brown needs to go?

Vallas would only say Lightfoot “needs to make some decisions” to stop the unrelenting gang violence triggering a surge in homicides, shootings and carjackings.

“Is it a bad strategy or is there no strategy at all? They seem to be grabbing at straws,” Vallas said.

“The latest case in point was the anti-gun platoons. … All they were doing is pulling officers from the narcotics division and stuff like that. In fact, they were pulling some officers from the training academy to work in these platoons. … Why did they get rid of the area support team in the first place? Area support teams were gang, gun and drug teams that worked certain areas of the city to support individual districts.”

Chicago Police Department spokesman Don Terry had no immediate comment on Vallas’ claims about police vacancies.

As for the $600 million contract, Vallas said the city can bankroll it without raising taxes or slowing police hiring by using some of the $1.9 billion avalanche of federal coronavirus relief funds headed to Chicago and with savings generated by refinancing city debt.

But he sees no reason for the city to extend the life of that debt when it is refinanced.

“They should not need to scoop-and-toss to finance the police contract. There’s no reason for them to do that. If they do scoop-and-toss, it’ll be for a lot of other reasons,” he said.

Interim Superintendent Charlie Beck, a retired Los Angeles police chief, ordered one of the most sweeping reorganizations in the history of the Chicago Police Department. He put hundreds of officers and detectives back in neighborhood districts.

With homicides, shootings and civil unrest surging, Brown reversed field last summer and created large units that can be mobilized across the city to fight crime. It stripped neighborhood police districts of “four to six” officers on each watch to prevent a third round of looting downtown.

When Brown has said he reversed field because Beck’s strategy “wasn’t working,” Beck pushed back.

He told the Sun-Times back then that the “community-oriented style” he embraced pushes resources “as close as possible” to the areas they serve to foster relationships between citizens and police.

He said Brown’s “more militaristic, shock-and-awe style of policing” with centralized resources deployed to hot spots has a “major drawback”: it “tends to alienate the community.”

“You just cannot saturate neighborhoods with police and expect that to be a long-term strategy. It’ll work in the short-term. But it can’t be your go-to,” Beck said. “It has to be something for emergencies.”

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