The downside of hiring more cops in Chicago

August 24, 2011

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(AP/Paul Beatty)
Supt. Gary McCarthy with Mayor Rahm Emanuel.

When Rahm Emanuel was running for mayor of Chicago, he outlined his crime strategy at a press conference. "As mayor I will put a thousand additional police on the streets working closely with Chicago residents to fight the guns, to fight the gangs and the fight the drugs that now pervade," he said.

That seems like a pretty straightforward promise, but it hasn't played out that way. Shortly after taking office Emanuel claimed he was making good on half of the promise to put a thousand more cops on Chicago's streets.

"While this is just the eighth day of being mayor, we are presenting today of putting 500 more police on our streets in the role of being beat officers," he said.

But here's the thing: These additional officers were already officers. They had been out on the streets, though not as beat cops.  Reporters immediately challenged Emanuel's assertion. Fran Spielman of the Chicago Sun-Times told the mayor he had promised a thousand new officers and she asked if he was going to deliver on that. The mayor responded, "Fran, I'm well aware of what I said, but I do appreciate being reminded, but thank you. But within the first seven days here, we're putting 500 officers on the street as a down payment."

Pat Camden with the Fraternal Order of Police, the union that represents cops, says those 500 officers were already agressively working the streets. "All they did is reassign them overnight. So, with all due respect to mayor, it's smoke and mirrors," Camden said.

The union is pushing for the city to hire more to keep up with the pace of cops who quit or retire. Camden estimates the department is down about 2,000 officers from a couple years ago, though he doesn't know the exact numbers. "You know the staffing of the police department is one of the best-kept secrets going. Why? I don't know. If you're going to turn around and say you know we've hired, we have a thousand additional officers, what was the number a hundred days ago, and what is it today? That's the question you should be asking somebody."

I did ask for those numbers several times over four days. A police spokeswoman said she didn't have exact numbers, however, she put the current workforce at more than 12,000 officers. That's a lot more than Los Angeles, for example, where they have a larger population, fewer than 10,000 cops and a much lower homicide rate. So if we already have more cops than they do, should we be adding more? Emanuel's campaign promise to do so may have been politically expedient, but is it a good idea?

"I think the idea of putting one thousand more cops on the street is unambiguously a good thing," said Jens Ludwig, an economist and co-director of the University of Chicago's crime lab. A few years ago he co-wrote a research paper that found that for every dollar spent on police, society sees a benefit of $4 to $8. 

"What that means is society has an opportunity to turn a $1 bill into a $4 bill, and if you had a machine at home, do not try this at home but if you had a machine that would spit out a $4 bill whenever you put a $1 bill into it, everyone would go to the bank and get as many $1 bills as they could get their hands on and feed it into that machine," he said.

But there are also costs with increasing the number of police on the street and those costs can be tough to measure. "The good intentions of actually creating the uniformed presence to lower the immediate problems of crime may have an unintended result when you're looking further down the line," according to George Gascon. He's the district attorney for the city of San Francisco, and before that he was the chief of police. He says low-income, often minority communities, are flooded with police, and residents are over-criminalized. Lots of people are arrested, sometimes for small infractions.

Kids get criminal records, they're cut off from educational and employment opportunities, and all of that ultimately makes the crime problems worse. "I'm not saying that we should look the other way to crime, to the contrary. What I'm saying is that the strategies that we used in the past have not worked well, and we need to evolve away from that. In many neighborhoods basically we have been at war with our people," Gascon said.

In Chicago, one of the most heavily policed neighborhoods is Englewood. It's not hard to find people in the neighborhood who think Emanuel's plan to add more cops is just going to make their lives harder. But there are also plenty of residents who do want more police on these violent blocks.

Mario, who doesn't want me to use his last name, he falls somewhere in the middle of the debate. I sometimes swing by his Englewood home to see how things are going in the neighborhood.  Just two days before we talked he was walking back from a nearby liquor store with his brother and a friend. Two officers pulled up in a police car. Mario says they yelled, "Freeze. Put your hands up. Don't move!" He says they had their guns out.

Mario says they had just been walking. The liquor bottle was still closed, they didn't have drugs. They didn't know why the cops were bothering them, pointing guns at them, something Mario says is scary no matter who's got the gun because accidents happen.

"So I asked. I asked why, what did we do? All I had was liquor and the explanation I got was shut up, let me do my job.  So I proceeded to ask again after maybe five minutes of being searched, what did we do? And he stated again, shut up, let me do my job, but it was a little more aggressive so I just decided to shut up and let him do his job," says Mario.

Mario says the three of them were searched and the cops looked around in the grass, presumably to see if they'd  thrown down any drugs.  All told, it took about a half an hour and then the three of them were let go. Mario's grandmother witnessed the whole thing from her front porch and wanted to file a complaint, but Mario says the cops didn't really do anything wrong, though he says the guns were unnecessary.

We talked for about a half an hour on his front porch and in that time I saw squad cars probably a dozen times, though he doesn't live on a main street. Cops cars drove down his street several times, several went through the intersection at the end of his block. One stopped a block over and I could see it through some vacant lots. Such a heavy police presence is not always welcome given the interactions residents have, like Mario's recent experience.

But then a cop drives slowly up the street, window open, his elbow hanging out. The white driver stopped halfway up the street and a young black man walked over to the car. They chatted for a few seconds and then the cruiser rolled on past Mario's house.

Mario points the car out. "Those the nice guys. They come through, talk a little bit, sports, asking us what's going on, I mean, all police are not bad you know?"

So with that in mind, does Mario think it's a good idea to put a thousand additional officers on the street?  He's less than enthusiastic, but he says, "I been watching the news. There's a lotta shit going on. A lot of people getting killed, kids, everything so me personally, I think it would be a good idea if it was used right." He stresses the word "right."

Police Superintendent Garry McCarthy says he's still reviewing what the Chicago police department has and what they need, so he's not calling for more cops at this point.  He admits more cops would mean more police contact for residents in poor communities. But McCarthy says that contact doesn't always have to be negative or end with arrests.