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More cops? Wait ’til next year

Updated: December 1, 2012 4:29PM

From the moment Mayor Rahm Emanuel unveiled his 2013 city budget earlier this month, many aldermen have been talking about the need to hire more police than the 500 he has proposed just to keep pace with retirements.

With a final vote on the budget now just weeks away, it’s becoming increasingly clear that’s all that aldermen are going to do: talk about it.

Barring some stunning last-minute change of heart by the mayor, there will be no more sworn officers in the Chicago Police Department next year than there were this year, when the city experienced an alarming spike in homicides.

Even as the city’s latest homicide victim on Monday moved the year’s total to 436, one more than in all of 2011 with two months still to go, there was no indication that the death of Carlos Alexander, 33, would do anything to change the political equation.

Faced with a tight budget that leaves them little maneuvering room and with an electorate in no mood for a tax increase, a majority of aldermen are prepared to continue to put their faith in Police Supt. Garry McCarthy and his assurances that he will have enough manpower to do the job as his crime-fighting strategies continue to take hold.

Adding 500 police officers above and beyond what Emanuel has requested would cost an extra $40 million to $50 million, aldermen say, and nobody has been eager to put forth a plan to pay for it.

That’s not to say somebody won’t surface with an alternative proposal between now and the final budget vote, only that it won’t get anywhere.

“We’re looking at it,” insisted Ald. Robert Fioretti (2nd), a member of a small group of aldermen who call themselves the Progressive Caucus.

The City Council’s Black Caucus also has been looking at the issue, but its chairman, Ald. Howard Brookins (21st), indicated that the group may be willing to wait to see if McCarthy’s promises for improved deployment accomplish the job of putting more police on the streets of their neighborhoods.

“If it doesn’t get better, you may see a stronger push in the coming year,” Brookins said.

Several aldermen suggested to me that they don’t expect any effort to add more police before the 2014 budget.

“I would love to have more police,” said Ald. Matt O’Shea (19th). “It’s something we should take a look at strongly next year. About the only way you get there now is through a tax increase, and it would be a massive one.”

The only alderman who has offered a specific suggestion to pay for more police, Ald. George Cardenas (12th), has now pulled back after experiencing a strong public backlash against his plan to impose a $5 per household monthly utility tax that he was calling a “safety and security fee.”

“I heard what people are saying: ‘Don’t be too quick on a tax,’ ” Cardenas said Monday.

Cardenas said he also now thinks it makes more sense to let the superintendent’s strategies “play out” over the next year.

Ald. Roderick Sawyer (6th) told me he has been pressing his fellow aldermen not to wait that long, suggesting they withhold their votes for the mayor’s budget unless they’re given assurances that more police are coming this year.

“I can’t speak for any other neighborhood, but I need more police officers. It’s serious right now,” he said.

Sawyer said he would even be willing to “entertain” a small property tax increase if it were to be used only to add police.

“I’m not afraid to do it. But I’m a realist at the same time,” Sawyer said. “I’ve been trying to talk to my colleagues. It’s an impossible fight.”

Emanuel has emphasized that he’s trying to use the city’s scarce resources in other ways to reduce the violence through increased after-school activities and more summer job opportunities for young people.

It’s hard to argue with that approach, and I certainly have no basis for saying that a police department of 12,500 — Emanuel’s new target for being fully staffed — is too small. In hiring 500 officers in this budget, Emanuel is halting a years-long practice of drawing down the force through attrition started under Mayor Richard M. Daley.

What I do know is that Chicago residents are always telling their aldermen they want more police, and the rank-and-file police believe they are understaffed as well.

And if we’re looking at another uptick in homicides next year, there’s going to be some serious second-guessing.

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