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Editorial: At long last, Chicago to strengthen police blue line

A Chicago police badge hangs in front of the City of Chicago Public Safety Headquarters on Dec. 1, 2015. (Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)


Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s reported plan to hire “hundreds” of additional police officers is better late than never.

But it truly is late, no doubt about it. About as late as the number of days Emanuel has been mayor. Our recollection is that Emanuel pledged to do exactly this — beef up the police force dramatically — way back when he first ran for mayor in 2011.

In the meantime, shootings and homicides in Chicago have increased, soaring especially this year. August was the deadliest month in Chicago in 20 years. The number of gunfire victims this year has nearly reached the total for all of last year. Just on Wednesday, four people were killed and 12 were wounded in shootings. Chicago has had more murders than New York and Los Angeles combined. So, yeah, Chicago needs more cops.

When Emanuel ran for mayor, he promised to add another 1,000 police officers. But once in office, he finessed that promise by simply reassigning officers, mostly by disbanding special units, saying he was putting 1,000 more cops on beats. That was at best a limited solution. And the mayor has been leaning heavily on handing out overtime ever since.

EDITORIAL

In 2005, the Police Department, which has about 12,000 sworn officers, spent a record $116.1 million on overtime. But there’s a limit to how many extra cops you can or should put on the street in that way. Cops burn out. Professionalism suffers. At some point — and, boy, have we reached that point — a big city simply needs more police officers.

Related to that, the Fraternal Order of Police made headlines in the last couple of weeks by urging officers to reject non-mandatory overtime to work the Labor Day weekend. Leaders of the FOP said they just thought it would be nice for officers to spend more time with their families, but nobody should believe that. Almost certainly the FOP was trying to make a point about how tired cops are tired of being beaten up by community groups, the media and City Hall and shown disrespect on the streets.

Fortunately, late last week, the Police Department said enough officers had volunteered to work overtime that full coverage could be achieved by cancelling leave for specialized units.

Frankly, a job action that could have left gaps in police protection over a long holiday weekend was a bad public relations move by the police union. Chicagoans want to feel safe and protected as they go out and about during this last fling of summer, and the very thought that the police might not be out in full force — just to make the point they are unhappy — would not have sat well with anybody. So much for building trust.

We do sympathize with the FOP’s larger complaint, though. FOP president Dean Angelo says the police are getting criticized from all directions. When they are going about basic police work, such as processing a crime scene, they are confronted by swarms of angry citizens to a degree never seen before.

If the police take a less controversial approach to making their frustrations known, Angelo asks, “who will listen?”

Emanuel hasn’t said how many more police officers he plans to hire, leaving such deals to a speech he has scheduled for Sept. 20. But many more cops must be hired just to replace police officers who have retired or who are expected to do so shortly. During Emanuel’s time as mayor, 975 more police officers have retired than have been replaced by new hires.

If you have heard only muted criticism over the years — including from this editorial page — of Emanuel’s failure to make good on his original campaign promise to hire many more officers, that’s probably because nobody — including this editorial page — had a clue where he might find the money. The new mayor walked into a financial disaster that was even worse than advertised.

But Ald. Pat O’Connor contends Emanuel has since put the city’s four pension funds on sounder financing footing and reduced the city’s budget deficit to the smallest in a decade, allowing room in the city’s 2017 fiscal year budget to hire more officers.

We’d like to see the numbers on that, but we can’t think of a more important priority. Chicago must curtail the violence.