Police clock in, budget clocks out

The Chicago Police Department’s current strategy of transferring officers from their desk jobs to the streets successfully reduced crime in 2013, but it carried an unreasonably high price tag. The overtime bill ran up to $103.5 million, nearly $10 million more than the department projected in the 2013 budget. The overinflated cost raises questions about how effectively the police department is utilizing its resources and whether its strategy is sustainable.

Although crime dropped 18 percent in the city from 2012–2013, according to city data, the CPD’s use of overtime is far less effective than simply hiring more cops. Instead of sinking its ballooning budget into increasing existing officers’ hours, the department should devote its funds to hiring more police officers, which would create jobs and avoid stretching resources so thin.

Mayor Rahm Emanuel and Police Superintendent Garry McCarthy have put off hiring new cops, redistributing officers from desk jobs to beats instead, according to a Jan. 31 mayoral press release. McCarthy has contended that it is cheaper to pay officers overtime than hire new ones and pay their salaries, pensions and benefits. However, the spending has reached a tipping point at which hiring more officers costs little more than paying the same officers to work excessive overtime. With salary, health insurance, pension and benefits, hiring new officers is not cheap, but the police department needs to strike a compromise to promote sustainability and hedge up the department’s budget. Spending so much on overtime and not investing in officers cannot go on.

Plus, some officers are earning more in overtime than a new officer’s starting salary, upward of $90,000 in some cases, according to the overtime report. The city has stated that it employs approximately 13,500 police officers, but that number is actually closer to 12,500, according to Pat Camden, a spokesman for the Fraternal Order of Police, the Chicago police union. The department needs to hire more officers to aid those working excessive overtime. They also need programs to address the root causes of crime in Chicago’s neighborhoods to avoid needing to hire even more police.

The high overtime bill not only damages the city’s already precarious financial state but also highlights a lack of accountability. If the city issues the CPD a blank check for overtime regardless of the planned budget, it primes itself for abuse, even if it is done in the name of public safety. The money that goes into the police department’s overtime fund does not earn a significant return on investment, either, and the department would be better off hiring fresh officers instead of spending the same amount on overtime paychecks.

The swelling overtime pay is only a symptom of what plagues the police department—there is rampant crime in Chicago and too few officers to respond when issues crop up. Police officers can volunteer for overtime shifts, but that may not be efficient when officers are exhausted and have to keep track of many crimes at once.

Instead of calling in police to respond to crimes and paying too few officers too much in overtime, the CPD should hire more officers and put them on patrol. McCarthy may contend that the payout costs more over time, but he also needs to consider the future of the department. If current officers continue to exceed than their salaries in overtime earnings and then retire in a few years with no new officers to replace them, the department will be consumed with debt and have no officers to fight the crime that will continue to plague Chicago. Part of McCarthy’s responsibility is to think about the welfare of the CPD, but it is also his responsibility to consider the good of the city as a whole. Part of that consideration is thinking about the sustainability of the department that fights and prevents crime for the sake of Chicago’s citizens.

The department should consider long-term results before paying out obscene amounts in overtime. The budget is a foreshadowing of the future of the city.