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THE WATCHDOGS: Rahm’s police hiring will barely make up for drop

Mayor Rahm Emanuel with police Supt. Eddie Johnson in September. | AP

Even if Mayor Rahm Emanuel manages to add nearly 1,000 cops in the next couple years, his promised surge of new hires would barely make up for the decline in the Chicago Police Department’s ranks on his watch.

There were 6,244 rank-and-file police officers working the city’s 22 police districts as of Oct. 19, records obtained by the Chicago Sun-Times show. That’s down more than 800 from the 7,047 beat cops shortly after Emanuel took office in 2011.

A decade ago, overall police department staffing totaled more than 14,000, according to police pension fund documents. At the start of 2011, the year Emanuel won his first term, the department had 12,737 members. Now, that figure has fallen below 12,000.

Early in Emanuel’s first term, a batch of newly hired officers increased the number of rank-and-file cops in districts, particularly in some of the city’s more violence-prone neighborhoods.

But waves of retirements have washed away those gains, leaving the number of officers working in the districts — who account for the bulk of the department’s payroll — far below the total five years ago.

The department brought on 409 recruits in the first nine months of this year. Over the same period, though, 547 people retired, records show.

The decline in manpower has cast a spotlight on the long-running debate over how the department should deploy its troops. For years, the Emanuel administration has fought a legal battle against the American Civil Liberties Union of Illinois and West Side activists, who have sued to increase police deployment in high-crime areas. They argue that the workload for officers in higher-crime areas still is far greater than in some parts of the city they say are relatively overstaffed.

Police dispatch times appear to back up that argument. The figures vary widely across the city, records show, with the department needing far more time on average to dispatch officers to high-priority crimes in more-violent districts than elsewhere.

“The city continues to have longer wait times for police in minority communities,” says Karen Sheley, director of police practices for the ACLU. “Nobody should get worse service because they live in a predominantly black or brown police district.”

Citywide, dispatch times to so-called Priority 1 and Priority 2 calls — the incidents that require the most urgent response from officers — have averaged about 4 minutes 30 seconds over the past three years, according to a Sun-Times analysis of data from by the city’s Office of Emergency Management and Communications.

But how quickly officers are dispatched still depends greatly on where you live, the analysis shows. All of the districts with the quickest dispatch times are on the North Side, while most of the longest waits are on the South Side, in higher-crime areas.

So far this year, it has taken an average of 6 minutes and 20 seconds to dispatch officers to major crime scenes in the 8th police district, on the South Side. In contrast, the wait in the 20th District, on the North Side, was less than three minutes, on average, during the same period.

A couple of the police districts that had some of the shortest dispatch times a few years ago have seen sharp increases. The districts that have seen the biggest increases in dispatch times this year include the 1st District, which covers parts of downtown and the near South Side, and the 8th District on the Southwest Side, now ranked last in the city.

Since 2011, the number of police officers in the 1st District has dropped from 296 to 259, while the 8th District has 332 beat cops now, compared to 377 five years ago.

As city officials prepare to hire more cops to help deal with the sharp increase in murders and other violent crimes this year, Supt. Eddie Johnson has promised an analysis to determine where those new officers should be assigned.

The criteria for where the new hires will be assigned will include “calls for service, crime data, district activity levels, density and geography,” police spokesman Anthony Guglielmi says, “to ensure equity across the city.”

Police redeployment has been one of the third rails of Chicago politics for decades. Elected officials representing even the most tranquil parts of the city never want to lose officers, for fear that violent crime might spread to their wards. Even in the police districts with lowest rates of violence, City Council members say they have seen increases in property crimes due to the thinning of the police force and have lobbied for more help.

Ald. Nicholas Sposato (38th) says Johnson has begun delivering on a promise to bring 32 more officers to the Northwest Side’s 16th District. Sposato and other aldermen had expressed concern to the top cop about the rise this year in property crime in one of the safest parts of Chicago.

“I was thrilled,” Sposato says. “He told us he wants to keep the safe places safe.”

But the ACLU and many aldermen say the most violent districts need a greater share of cops than they have.

“We don’t just need more officers,” the ACLU’s Sheley says. “We need officers with similar workloads across the city.”

A spokesman for the Emanuel administration’s Law Department declined to comment on the ongoing lawsuit over police deployment.

Ald. Roderick Sawyer (6th) says more officers need to be stationed closer to where the most violent crime is.

“Some areas just don’t need as many officers,” says Sawyer, chairman of the council’s Black Caucus. “Solving property crime is important, but let’s be honest. We need to redeploy officers in those areas where there’s real activity — the robbing, killing, drug dealing.”

In addition to the disparities in dispatch times by district, the ACLU points to another key statistic that indicates high-crime areas are understaffed. There are big gaps from district to district in the number of calls for which no officer is available to respond.

As with dispatch times, the North Side fares far better on this than the South Side. The 20th District had only 10 calls for which no officer was free to respond in the first nine months of this year. At the other end of the spectrum was the 3rd District on the South Side, which had 352 such situations through September.

Former Mayor Richard M. Daley’s administration fought efforts to release documents showing where officers were assigned, arguing that could compromise safety. Initially, there was also resistance from Emanuel’s first police superintendent, Garry McCarthy.

“You know, the military doesn’t tell the Taliban how many people they have and where they are,” McCarthy told aldermen in 2011. “If we are going to adequately preform our jobs, there are some things that we really need to keep to ourselves — the size of different units, where the cops are, things like that. It could compromise public safety.”

Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan’s office issued an opinion, though, that the state’s Freedom of Information Act didn’t exempt the city from releasing district-by-district  deployment figures.

The numbers released in 2012 showed Emanuel had fallen far short of his campaign promise to add 1,000 officers to patrol the streets.

At first, the number of beat officers in the city’s police district rose, from 6,542 in April 2011 — a month before Emanuel was sworn in — to more than 7,000 by that September. The new hires were focused largely on high-crime areas.

But within two years, by the fall of 2013, that figures had dropped below 6,400 rank-and-file cops in patrol districts.

As of Oct. 19, there were fewer beat officers working in the districts than when Emanuel took office.

While the numbers of cops plummeted, McCarthy and Emanuel said they didn’t need more money for more officers.

This year, with the number of killings and shooting surging, the mayor did an about-face and said he would aim to increase the size of the department significantly.

The two-year hiring plan promises to add 500 police officers, 200 detectives, 112 sergeants, 92 field training officers and 50 lieutenants — for a total increase of 970 positions.

It won’t be easy to meet that goal because the already-brisk pace of retirements is rising. In October, the Sun-Times reported 274 officers declared their intention to retire by June 30, driven by an expiring offer of free health care for cops who are 55 years old.

Police officials say they are gearing up to overcome that. Starting next year, they say, nearly 100 police recruits a month will be trained.

Contributing: Data Reporting Lab editor Darnell Little