CITY HALL — Chicago Police Supt. Garry McCarthy hopes to add 265 police officers to the ranks before the end of the year, he told alderman during a City Council budget hearing Thursday.
McCarthy vowed to keep the department at full strength, and said a class of 65 recruits is set to enter the police academy.
Bhe city's top cop caught flak when he couldn't present up-to-date staffing figures for the Police Department.
According McCarthy, the department has 13,442 employees, with an "authorized strength" of 12,533 sworn officers. Yet he estimated the department has about 12,000 officers currently, with about 250 vacancies, and said he'd been given two sets of conflicting figures, promising to present more exact numbers at a later time.
That drew the ire of Ald. Willie Cochran (20th), a former Chicago cop.
"It's bull," Cochran said. "It's unacceptable."
He said criticism that the department wasn't fully staffed was being "swept under the rug."
Ald. Ricardo Munoz (22nd) called it "a trick not to have the conversation in public."
"How can we have a conversation about police when we don't have the staffing numbers?" Munoz said.
The attacks on McCarthy came at the end of a morning hearing. He came back from lunch with precise figures showing the department has 267 vacancies for officers, with 65 recruits about to enter the academy and plans for two more classes of about 100 each before the end of the year to address the remaining open positions. McCarthy pledged to keep the department at full strength despite attrition from retirements.
Cochran said he was satisfied with that response.
Overall, McCarthy boasted many gains and improvements in crime and murder statistics, touting reductions in murders and in police overtime.
McCarthy said the department has cleared almost 60 percent of murder cases, "the highest such figure in six years," while complaints filed against police were down.
"We have a long way to go to get the trust we need," he added, "but those are very good indicators."
McCarthy said, year to date, there were 21 fewer murders than last year, putting the city on a pace to have the lowest number of murders since the Bears won the NFL championship in 1963.
According to McCarthy, through September the Police Department had recorded eight straight quarters of reductions in murders, going back two years. Over that time, the department registered 500 fewer shooting incidents and 123 fewer murders than in the two years preceding.
McCarthy added that robberies, burglaries, car thefts and overall crime are all down this year.
He said that police overtime, a contentious budget issue a year ago, was down 8 percent. But he added that he "can't answer" whether the budgeted amount of $71 million for overtime would be sufficient in 2015.
Munoz led attempts last year to cut the need for overtime by hiring more police officers, a proposal sidetracked in the City Council Budget Committee.
Ald. Scott Waguespack (32nd) said overtime was "out of control."
Yet McCarthy argued that only 44 percent of overtime was due to direct crime-reduction strategies, and that the rest, a majority, was due to day-to-day operations, such as officers completing an arrest at the end of a shift, which cannot be reduced.
"It's cheaper to pay for overtime than to hire a fully loaded police officer," McCarthy said, especially with seasonal spikes, such as the way crime tends to increase in summer months.
McCarthy also touted a $2 million investment to put more officers on bicycles throughout the city, especially in areas targeted for concentrated enforcement in the department's Operation Impact initiative to reduce gun violence and street crime.
"Having our officers on bicycles allows them to be more approachable, helps them better know the community and connect with the residents they serve more effectively," McCarthy said in his statement.
McCarthy also said arrests for low-level marijuana possession fell 39 percent, as the department institutes reforms allowing ticketing rather than arrests.
"Racial disparity in ticketing has been essentially erased," he insisted, "with African-American, white and non-white offenders ticketed for [marijuana] possession at the same rates."
"We're keeping people out of jail and keeping officers on the street," McCarthy testified during the hearing, adding that the average pot arrest took more than three hours for an officer to process.
Yet he put up resistance when asked his personal opinion about the legalization of marijuana, either for medical or recreational use.
"I have a professional opinion, not a personal one," McCarthy said, adding that the reluctance of banks to deal with even legal drug money turned it into a cash-only business that attracts crime.
"I'm not talking about reefer madness," McCarthy said, instead pointing to the robberies, burglaries, home invasions and even shootings "that surround the actual business of it."
He added, "Before we jump into this, we should spend some time researching lessons learned."
Ald. Jason Ervin (28th) asked if there were plans to attack drug buyers as well as sellers in his West Side neighborhood. He blamed suburban buyers for encouraging drug sales.
"You don't dissuade someone from buying narcotics by arresting them," McCarthy said. "The narcotics dealer, yeah, we can hurt them," mainly because sentencing guidelines for those offenses are more harsh.
Ald. Matthew O'Shea (19th) asked what the department was doing on gang funerals at Mount Hope Cemetery, each of which "puts my constituents in harm's way" with motorcades going to and from the cemetery and sometimes leading to gang conflicts.
McCarthy called it an "imminent danger."
"We can't have it," he added. "We put a very strong reaction in place with that, and I think it's working."
McCarthy defended the military vehicles and equipment the department has, saying criminals often have military weapons and "we have to be prepared to respond in kind." Yet he was critical of many of the police practices that have led to protests in Ferguson, Mo., saying, "The policing profession is paying a price for what's going on over there."
He repeated his support for a ban on assault weapons. "They have no place in a civilized society. You can't tell me you use them for squirrel hunting," McCarthy said. "They put police officers in danger."
McCarthy said the department had doubled the number of citations issued for the sale of loose cigarettes, from 403 last year to 805 this year.
Ald. Joe Moreno (1st) asked McCarthy about the "terrible legacy" of Cmdr. Jon Burge.
"Obviously, any officer who engages in criminal activity violates a code of ethics in policing," McCarthy said, calling Burge's torture practices "disgusting" and "reprehensible."
"We all feel the same way about it," he added. "We don't tolerate it, I would never tolerate it."
For more neighborhood news, listen to DNAinfo Radio here: