CITY HALL — Police Supt. Garry McCarthy faced a City Council budget hearing Tuesday in front of almost 20 aldermen who have called for his firing.
McCarthy confronted the aldermen a day after the aldermen, led by members of the council's Black Caucus, demanded his ouster.
They raised doubts over his leadership after a rash of shootings and murders in September produced the worst monthly murder count in years.
McCarthy persistently blamed lax gun laws and said the Police Department would pursue cases of illegal gun possession to the fullest extent of the law, including "investigations to arrest and charge anyone involved in an illegal sale or transfer of the gun at any point in its history."
According to McCarthy, Chicago Police have taken 5,500 guns off the streets so far this year, more than any other city. He called for "a culture of accountability for gun offenders."
McCarthy blamed the proliferation of guns for the 370 murders and 1,870 shootings so far this year, up from 306 and 1,581 at this time last year. According to department data, 78 percent of murder victims this year were African-American, while 16 percent were Hispanic.
Ald. Carrie Austin (34th), chairman of the Budget Committee, opened the hearing by saying it would stick to "budget issues," adding, "We will stay decent and in order."
Yet Ald. Howard Brookins (21st) immediately questioned McCarthy on minority representation in the department, and Ald. Anthony Beale (9th) followed by telling McCarthy, "You've been extremely disrespectful to every member in this body."
Beale told McCarthy he's "not the smartest person in the room," adding, "You have to listen to what other people have to say."
Austin kept McCarthy from responding to that, saying, "It's not a movie theater."
Ald, Emma Mitts (37th) expressed her "severe disappointment" with the department, saying, "Your policies are failing my ward and they're failing the City of Chicago."
"I share everybody's frustration in this room," McCarthy said. When asked how aldermen could help directly, he immediately returned to his opening message, saying, "Let's get on the bus and go to Springfield" to push for new gun laws.
Austin rejected that, actually pounding the table to ask for something more constructive, but McCarthy wouldn't back down.
"Hold the entire system accountable," he said. "There's no magic solution to this. ... It's a systematic failure, and the system has to change."
That was as heated as the exchanges got at Tuesday's hearing.
Later McCarthy described the current system as "catch and release," adding, "They're not trout. These are violent criminals."
Yet he also admitted that he and Mayor Rahm Emanuel had not even been able to get a legislator to submit a bill in the General Assembly for the gun-law reforms they feel the city requires.
Austin expressed doubts that new legislation would have any impact on gun violence in the streets. She called on the police brass to "get on the ball," adding that, just as voters blame aldermen, they in turn shift the blame to police. "When you were hired, you said you would do a better job," she told McCarthy. "We expect even better of you, because our constituents expect better of us."
"There's a lot of frustration across the whole city," said Ald. Willie Cochran (20th), a former Chicago cop. "Our system is broken."
"Agreed," said McCarthy.
Yet McCarthy dismissed calls for more police officers, saying Chicago has more cops per capita than any major U.S. city. "It's cheaper to pay the overtime than to hire a police officer," he said.
According to department figures released during the hearing, it has spent $72 million so far this year on overtime, projected to reach $100 million by the end of the year. The department was budgeted for $71 million in overtime for 2015.
Ald. Scott Waguespack (32nd) countered on Twitter: "OT may be cheaper in $, not in lives."
"We are not adequately staffed," insisted Ald. Chris Taliafero (29th), a Chicago Police sergeant before his election earlier this year. He said it contributed to "a lack of morale" in the department.
Yet some aldermen focused on smaller issues.
Ald. Jason Ervin (28th), who tangled with McCarthy in past budget hearings, said it wasn't just about gun violence on the West Side. "Folks sell dope like it's candy," he said. "Folks sell cigarettes like it's candy."
McCarthy said they had targeted blocks on the West Side, but "that's not an easy thing to do, to eradicate narcotics conditions." He said, "It's gonna be a long process," but pointedly added, "I hear what you're saying, and I understand."
Ald. Walter Burnett Jr. (27th) warned of gangs having turf wars over who was entitled to sell loose, untaxed cigarettes, or "loosies," on various street corners. "You're gonna have a gang war over loose cigarettes," Burnett said. "It's one of those things we need to pay attention to or somebody's gonna get hurt."
Burnett urged McCarthy to "do what you have to do to get the riffraff off the street."
Ald. Tom Tunney (44th) charged that the merged Town Hall District went from 468 officers in earlier years to 333 in August and said that made it hard to support a budget with a record $600 million increase in property taxes. He said his Lakeview area was beset by robberies and burglaries "where people see opportunities."
McCarthy blamed the drop on senior officers who seek assignments at Town Hall and then retire, adding he'd work to "get that back in balance."
According to the department, it has hired 346 new officers this year, with two classes coming in the next two months to address 201 vacancies. McCarthy said they'd keep the department at a "full" complement of officers.
Budget Director Alexandra Holt put the force at 9,786 beat cops in testimony at an earlier hearing.
"I don't think you're moving forward," said Ald. Leslie Hairston (5th). "I think you're moving backwards."
"I think we've got the best police department in the nation," countered Ald. Edward Burke (14th), another former Chicago cop. He went on to call McCarthy "the best big-city police chief in the country today."
"Crime is rampant," said Ald. Ariel Reboyras (30th), new chairman of the Public Safety Committee, in summing up. "There's a lot of work to be done. We need to get the confidence back of our colleagues."
Yet he added, "I don't expect you ... to quit on us."
It wasn't until toward the end of the hearing that Ald. David Moore (17th) politely renewed the call for McCarthy's ouster, saying, "Sometimes change is needed, and you've taken it as far as you can right now."
McCarthy just as politely didn't respond to that except to sit through the more than five-hour hearing answering questions throughout, including another call for his firing by Ald. Raymond Lopez (15th).
Earlier, Mayor Emanuel gave McCarthy a vote of confidence after a City Hall award ceremony honoring police officers and firefighters.
"I do stand by him," Emanuel said. He minimized the criticism from African-American aldermen by saying, "I understand their frustration" over persistent violence in the neighborhoods. He blamed it on "gangs and guns ... and also the lack of economic opportunity."
Ald. Nicholas Sposato (38th) also backed the police chief. "I stand behind him," Sposato said. He added, however, that more police and "maybe new tactics" were necessary. Sposato said the force was down about 2,000 officers from 15 years ago. "I believe that's a big problem," he added. "We need to figure something out to put more police officers on the street."
Sposato said he hoped Emanuel wouldn't "throw him under the bus," adding it was "a possibility" African-American aldermen were creating a diversion from their upcoming vote on a record $600 million increase in property taxes.
Two years ago, McCarthy faced tough questioning from Ervin, one of the aldermen who joined in the attack on him Monday.
Last year's hearing was more restrained, but McCarthy still had to deal with aldermen questioning his preference for overtime over hiring new police officers, an issue that figures to resurface Tuesday.
McCarthy began his day at City Hall on Tuesday with the award ceremony honoring police officers and firefighters. He concluded his opening remarks by saying, "I am so proud to be your police superintendent."
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