With campaigns for mayor and aldermanic seats underway, the call for Chicago to hire more police officers is loud and getting louder. Too bad the loudest voices are those with the fewest facts to back their position.
On what basis, for example, do candidates for mayor and the City Council believe that the city should hire more police officers? Rising crime? Crime has been going down since the early 1990s. Seemingly staggering amounts of overtime pay? It’s less expensive than hiring more officers. They hear from officers in their wards that they are short of help? The Chicago Police Department has more than 10,000 officers. All have the right to their opinions, but none of those opinions equals facts.
Does that mean we should make do?
No. It means nobody knows what they’re talking about. Arguments are grounded in emotion and political opportunism, not facts. But the facts can be had. Social science research methods can, and have been, applied to the question of how many officers Chicago needs. These studies take in to account crime patterns, calls for police service and overall objectives of the police agency, among other factors.
In fact, the Chicago Police Department has conducted manpower studies of this very kind at least twice since 2000. Unfortunately, it refuses to make these studies public, thereby depriving us of the very facts that ought to ground the debate.
That refusal leaves a vacuum that self-serving politicians, police unions and lazy reporters are happy to fill with disingenuous half-truths about alleged staffing shortages. You would be hard-pressed to find a single aldermanic or mayoral challenger not pushing public safety as a campaign theme despite our historic drop in crime since the early 1990s.
An example: To allege that the police department is short of officers requires someone to point to a number they believe is an appropriate level of staffing. When pushed, some cite a number that appeared for years in the Chicago Police Department’s annual budget: 13,541 sworn officers. The problem is that—as far as my highly placed sources in the department can determine—this number is based on the 1950 census, when the city had a population of 3.6 million. Sixty-four years later, Chicago’s population is 2.7 million—a net loss of 900,000 residents. The Chicago Reader generated its own estimate last year.
A quick Internet search uncovers that police manpower and resource allocation studies are readily available from big and small cities across America (here’s a compilation of links to these reports).
Someone who makes a career doing this kind of research is Alexander Weiss, a former director of Northwestern University’s Center for Public Safety and now a consultant at Hillard Heintze, run by former Chicago police chief Terry Hillard. In fact, Weiss assisted in a manpower study that was completed just as former chief Jody Weis was walking out the door to make way for current chief Garry McCarthy in 2011. These kinds of studies actually are quite common—which makes it all the more distressing that we continue to have this argument without access to the facts. Weiss, for one, has completed similar studies for police departments across America. We are not talking about conjuring up rarely used techniques to solve this problem but rather everyday methods that social scientists use to address this question across the country.
Also available on our website is a copy of Weiss’ patrol manpower analysis, which he completed for the Chicago Police Department in 2010. Our sources have told us Weiss’ study was part of a much larger analysis, which included beat realignment for the entire city, completed within the department’s Research and Development Division.
At the police budget hearing in October 2013, McCarthy claimed that he has not seen a staffing study in his four years as police superintendent. You’d think the size of his force would have been one of the first things he examined when he got here.
You would think Mayor Rahm Emanuel would want the city’s police department to give up the goods; after all, he’s the one who will get pounded over “rising” crime or, according to the new narrative, the “perception of rising crime,” along with attacks on his use of overtime versus hiring. And yet the police department continues to hoard staffing studies as if they are state secrets. Perhaps the studies show a department with too many officers!
In the upcoming city elections, we need voices that serve the interests of all Chicagoans by advocating in favor of science over self-serving politicians and stenographic reporters. Elected officials and candidates for office should advocate for the release of the Chicago Police Department’s manpower studies before advocating for a particular position on staffing and overtime. It’s not even clear that hiring more officers would reduce crime, but it’s an appropriate place to start the debate. Because right now, we’re starting with conclusions instead of facts.
Tracy Siska is executive director of the Chicago Justice Project, a nonprofit organization focused on justice system transparency in Chicago. He also is a visiting professor in the Department of Criminal and Social Justice at the University of St. Francis.